Medical Pot for Patients on Probation Was Controversial, But Now It's Law

Leonard Watkins, as seen in a 2010 9News report.
Leonard Watkins, as seen in a 2010 9News report.

What a difference a few years make.

Last month, we told you about a bill that would make it legal for medical marijuana patients on probation to use cannabis — a previously controversial notion that was ripped by at least one prominent district attorney and rejected by the Colorado Court of Appeals.

However, the measure was approved by both houses of the Colorado legislature, and Governor John Hickenlooper has quietly signed it into law.

As we've reported, the issue first came to the public's attention back in 2010 via Leonard Watkins, a medical marijuana card holder who was put on probation in Arapahoe County as a result of a 2005 conviction involving sexual assault on a child.

Former district attorney Carol Chambers at a 2012 press conference.
Former district attorney Carol Chambers at a 2012 press conference.
YouTube file photo

Nonetheless, a judge had sanctioned his use of MMJ, much to the chagrin of then-18th Judicial District DA Carol Chambers.

In an e-mail statement, Chambers wrote, "Does anyone think it's a good idea to allow a convicted sex offender to get high? People on probation have admitted to violating the law. There are different public safety concerns and different laws that apply to them than apply to the rest of the community."

Chambers's office subsequently appealed the decision allowing cannabis medication.

Before the Colorado Court of Appeals, Watkins's legal team argued that Amendment 20, the 2000 measure that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado, "is paramount and necessarily prevails" over probation rules that forbid him from using or possessing "any narcotic, dangerous or abusable substance without a prescription."

To that, the judges wrote, "We are not persuaded." Here's their elaboration on the point, contained in an original court document on view below:

The Amendment provides that it shall be an exception from the state's criminal laws for any patient in lawful possession of a "registry identification card" to use marijuana for medical purposes.... Under the Amendment, however, a physician does not prescribe marijuana, but may only provide "written documentation" stating that the patient has a debilitating medical condition and might benefit from the medical use of marijuana... Therefore, defendant's physician's certification does not constitute a "written lawful prescription" as required by the terms of his probation.

Representative Joe Salazar.
Representative Joe Salazar.
YouTube file photo

House Bill 15-1267, sponsored by Representative Joe Salazar, attempted to fix this situation. We've included that document here as well, but here's its brief summary:

Under current law, a person on probation is prohibited from committing another offense. The possession and use of marijuana is an offense under federal law.
The bill makes an exception to the probation conditions for the possession and use of medical marijuana pursuant to the state constitution unless the person is convicted of an offense related to medical marijuana.

Watkins was hardly the ideal poster child for the measure, but that didn't slow it down. After the House approved it, the Senate did likewise on April 27, by a 34-1 vote.

Afterward, Rachel Gillette, executive director of Colorado NORML, urged Hickenlooper to affix his signature to it. In an e-mail to Westword, she wrote, "This bill rights two wrongs — the wrong of denying a marijuana patient’s use of his or her doctor’s recommended treatment while on probation, and second, the wrong of wasting vital government resources by violating a person’s probation when a medical marijuana patient chooses to use that doctor-recommended treatment over (in many cases) more harmful prescription alternatives.

Rachel Gillette.
Rachel Gillette.
File photo

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"For years since the Watkins case, medical marijuana patients on probation have had to face an unnecessarily harmful choice — give up their doctor’s recommended treatment or face a probation violation. Such a choice causes unnecessary harm to both the individual and our communities. Allowing access to medical marijuana to a patient is not contradictory to the purposes of probation — which is offender accountability, personal development and public service."

Look below to see the bill, followed by the decision in the Watkins case.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.


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