The last decade has been a game-changer for the legalization of medical marijuana in this country. Currently, 29 states plus our nation’s capital, legally allow the use of medical marijuana, with more states jumping on the medical marijuana bandwagon each year.
However, the specific regulations surrounding the use of medical marijuana varies from state to state, which can be confusing for cardholders who aren’t familiar with the specifications.
While some states, such as Colorado, have made great strides forward in the legalization of marijuana (medicinal and otherwise), other states, like Arizona, seem to be engaged in a constant debate.
Arizona voters approved the state’s medical marijuana program in 2010. Since then, lawmakers have made repeated attempts to alter the laws that define the program.
For instance, in 2012, state lawmakers passed a statute that made possession of marijuana on state university campuses – even medically prescribed marijuana – a Class 6 felony. At the time, Arizona was the only state in the United States to impose such harsh consequences for medical marijuana patients caught possessing or using the substance on campus.
But thanks to the 2014 arrest and subsequent appeal of Arizona State University student and medical marijuana cardholder, Andre Maestas, this statute was overturned by the Arizona Court of Appeals on April 6, 2017.
How does the arrest of one student result in the overturning of an entire law?
Let’s find out.
On March 18, 2014, Andre Maestas, a freshman (at the time) at Arizona State University(ASU), took a cigarette break while enjoying a movie night on campus with friends. Unfortunately, Maestas chose the wrong place to sit down while enjoying his smoke – the middle of a quiet intersection. Almost immediately, Maestas was approached by campus police, and later arrested for blocking a public roadway.
But that’s not all that Maestas was arrested for that night.
While questioning Maestas about blocking the roadway, campus police proceeded to search her wallet, where they discovered her medical marijuana card. This led to a raid of her dorm room (after obtaining a warrant, according to court records), where police found .6 grams of medical marijuana (118 times less than the 2.5 ounces that medical marijuana cardholders are permitted to possess) and various smoking paraphernalia.
Despite having a valid medical marijuana card for the treatment of her chronic back pain from a misplaced vertebra, Maestas was charged with a Class 6 felony for possessing marijuana in her campus dorm room. This was in addition to the Class 3 misdemeanor charge she received for blocking a public roadway.
Whether it was bad luck or a simple case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Maestas faced stiff penalties from both the law and from ASU. If found guilty of the class 6 felony, Maestas would have lost her financial aid and could have faced possible expulsion.
Maestas’ arrest highlighted a real issue for cardholding medical marijuana students living on campus. If possessing or using medical marijuana on campus was illegal, where were cardholding students expected to use their prescribed medication?
ASU offered no solution, and still doesn’t to this day.
Other colleges, such as the University of Colorado in Boulder, give cardholding students the option to break housing or dining agreements so they can live off-campus without incurring financial or academic consequences. This allows them to use their prescribed medication freely and as needed.
In contrast, ASU barely addressed the issue, saying only, “Arizona’s medical marijuana law also prohibits marijuana on campus,” in a written statement that they still stand by today. (White, 2015)
Taking it a step further, Maricopa County Attorney, Bill Montgomery, believes that there’s no need for solutions regarding medical marijuana on campus, saying in an email, “If someone is healthy enough to be attending college on a regular basis, there are more than enough legal medical alternatives that would allow them to successfully treat their condition and remain on campus without breaking the law.”
Many argue that the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act(AMMA) directly contradicts Montgomery’s opinion and was passed specifically to protect people who require the use of medical marijuana rather than other medications, whether they are a student living on campus or not.
So, what began as a simple incident involving the blocking of a roadway ended up giving Maestas a platform to not only bring awareness to this pressing issue, but to try and change the laws that surround it.
Maestas Fights Back
Initially following her arrest, prosecutors offered Maestas the opportunity to participate in a six-month drug-treatment and testing program (TASC), rather than facing a trial.
This was a seemingly bold move, especially since a drawn-out legal battle could potentially put Maestas’ financial aid and enrollment at ASU in jeopardy.
But Maestas was looking at the bigger picture. She was determined to not only fight her felony drug conviction, but also fight to overturn the 2012 statute that modified the AMMA and led to her arrest.
“I’m just trying to do what’s right for medical-marijuana patients. Nobody should be restricted access to higher education just because they happen to use a specific type of medication for whatever ailment they have,” said Maestas. (White, 2015)
Enlisting the help of pro-cannabis defense attorney, Tom Dean, Maestas formed a case claiming that the legislature’s passing of the 2012 campus-ban statute was illegal under the 1998 Voter Protection Act, which protects laws created by voters by prohibiting the legislature or governor from altering or changing them.
And the 2012 campus-ban statute did exactly that – altered specific regulations of the voter-approved AMMA.
Because, while the original AMMA explicitly banned medical marijuana from K-12 campuses, it said nothing about college campuses. And the addition of the 2012 statute meant that patients using or possessing medical marijuana on college campuses were now subject to felony prosecution.
Maestas and Dean felt that this directly contradicted the sole purpose of the AMMA, which is “to protect patients with debilitating medical conditions, as well as their physicians and providers, from arrest and prosecution, criminal and other penalties and property forfeiture if such patients engage in the medical use of marijuana,” and went against the Voter Protection Act. (White, 2017)
While the 1998 Voter Protection Act does allow legislature to change voter-approved laws if, and only if, the changes further the purpose of the law, Dean felt strongly that the 2012 statute did not fit the bill, saying, “It does not further the purpose of the Medical Marijuana Act, which is to protect, not expose, but to protect patients from criminal and other penalties. If the legislature can go in and start to dismantle, and tinker with a voter-passed initiative, then they can do it anywhere in any initiative. So, this is an important case, not just for medical marijuana, but for the voters of Arizona.” (Jones, 2015)
Which is exactly why even after the state reduced Maestas’ felony charge to a misdemeanor, she chose to appeal the case with high hopes of getting the unfair law overturned, saying, “It’s not really fair to subject people who are using something out of necessity to this kind of punishment.” (White, 2015)
The Verdict and Appeal
In October 2015, Maestas was found guilty and sentenced to one-year of unsupervised probation, a $750 fine, and 24-hours of community service.
Although the reduced sentence was ultimately good news, Maestas was still unsatisfied with the entire situation. Even though the state reduced Maestas’ Class 6 felony charge to a Class 1 misdemeanor, the unfair law that spurred Maestas’ arrest was still in place.
This prompted Maestas and Dean to file a Notice of Appeal in an attempt to overturn the law and make a real difference in Arizona’s drug policy and the upholding of the Voter Protection Act.
And that is exactly what Maestas and Dean’s hard work and dedication over the next two years did.
On April 6, 2017, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the law banning medical marijuana from college campuses, stating “that the 2012 bill expanding the medical-marijuana ban to college campuses violated the Arizona Constitution’s protections for voter-approved laws.” (White, 2017)
Thanks to the efforts of Maestas and Dean, medical marijuana cardholders possessing cannabis on college and university campuses can no longer be charged with a felony crime.
It’s undeniable that Maestas was looking at the bigger picture from the beginning and knew that her case was about more than just medical marijuana.
“It’s much bigger than just medical marijuana itself, it’s a defense of the Voter Protection Act,” Maestas said. “Citizens initiatives is one of the great things that Arizona has, allowing us to get our own issues and our own laws on the books just through signature gathering and allowing citizens to vote on them.” (Franklin, 2017)
Not only did the Court of Appeals overturn the 2012 statute, but they also overturned Maestas’ 2014 conviction.
Following the ruling, Maestas, who was understandably pleased, said, “I was very happy. Elated. Definitely what we wanted to happen, and I couldn’t believe it took so long, and it was good to have a victory.”
While this ruling was certainly a win, not only for Maestas and Dean, but also for all medical marijuana users and voters in Arizona, the policy surrounding medical marijuana is still imperfect.
Although it is no longer a felony for cardholders to possess medical marijuana on college campuses, the possession of marijuana — medicinal or otherwise — is still officially banned on all college campuses in Arizona (and nationwide for that matter). It is still illegal under federal laws, which means all public colleges and universities must comply and ban marijuana from campus grounds to receive federal grants and funding.
So, what exactly does this mean for cardholding college students and employees?
While they will no longer face felony charges if caught with medical marijuana on campus, they will have to answer to university officials and could face punishments such as drug-education classes, suspension, or even expulsion. But people like Maestas and Dean may one day change it all.
Overall, what started as an uphill battle that put ASU student, Andre Maestas’, academic future in a precarious situation, ended with a win for Maestas and a giant step forward for medical marijuana reform in Arizona.