HSC Resolves Medical Marijuana Loophole in Favor of Defendant

State v. Woodhall (HSC May 31, 2013)
Background. Geoffrey Woodhall was charged with a single count of knowingly possessing marijuana in violation of promoting a detrimental drug in the third degree. HRS § 712-1249(1). Apparently, Woodhall was arrested after marijuana was found in a plastic baggie at the airport in Kona even though Woodhall had a medical marijuana registry card. Woodhall filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the medical marijuana laws protected him from transporting the marijuana. According to Woodhall, the only prohibited use was ingesting the drug in public. The prosecution objected and urged the court to strictly construe the statutes.

Just before trial, the parties stipulated a number of facts: Woodhall knowingly possessed 2.12 grams of marijuana at the Kona airport in a clear, plastic baggie. The airport is a public place. Woodhall had a valid medical marijuana certificate. The marijuana was discovered at the TSA checkpoint. Woodhall was not ingesting the marijuana. The only real issue to be resolved at trial was whether the medical marijuana could be transported in a place open to the public. The district court ruled that the kind of transportation permitted under the medical marijuana laws was limited only to the transportation from caregiver to patient. The stipulated facts in this trial did not include that kind of transfer. The district court found Woodhall guilty as charged and fined him $50 and charged fees up to $280. Woodhall appealed. The ICA held that Woodhall failed to meet his burden in establishing the affirmative defense of medical marijuana. Woodhall petitioned for certiorari.

The Medical Use of Marijuana Defense. “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution for any marijuana-related offense defined in this part that the person who possessed or distributed the marijuana was authorized to possess or distribute the marijuana for medical purposes pursuant to part IX of chapter 329.” HRS § 712-1240.1(2). Furthermore, “[a] qualifying patient . . . may assert the medical use of marijuana as an affirmative defense to any prosecution involving marijuana under this [part] or chapter 712; provided that the qualifying patient . . . strictly complied with the requirements of this part." HRS § 329-125(a).

Affirmative defenses place the burden of proof on the defendant to show the defense with preponderant evidence. HRS § 701-115(2)(b). This standard “directs the factfinder to decide whether the existence or nonexistence of the contested fact is more probable than its nonexistence.” State v. Romano, 114 Hawai'i 1, 8, 155 P.3d 1102, 1109 (2007). In other words, the defendant “need only offer evidence sufficient to tip the scale slightly in his or her favor, and the [prosecution] can succeed by merely keeping the scale evenly balanced.” Id. Here, however, the parties stipulated most of the facts to narrow in on the issue of the affirmative defense.

The Stipulated Facts . . . The reason why the parties stipulated most of the facts was to cut through the red tape and narrow it down to a single issue. So, the issue presented was with the stipulation that the marijuana was for “medical use” as defined in HRS § 329-121 and that the 2.12 grams were part of the “adequate supply” within the three-ounce limit in HRS § 329-121. Finally, the stipulation that Woodhall’s certificate was valid signifies that he is a “qualifying patient . . . diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating medical condition” and that the “physician has certified in writing that, in the physician’s professional opinion, the potential benefits of the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the health risks for the particular qualifying patient.” HRS § 329-122(a)(1)&(2).

. . . And now the Problem. It is undisputed that Woodhall “was authorized to possess . . . the marijuana for medical purposes pursuant to part IX of chapter 329[.]” HRS § 712-1240.1(1). But Woodhall still had to show that he was in “strict compliance” with HRS chapter 329. HRS § 329-125. Here’s the problem. “Medical use” of marijuana includes the “acquisition, possession, cultivation, use, distribution, or transportation of marijuana[.]” HRS § 329-121. However, “medical use” shall not apply “[a]t any . . . place open to the public.” HRS § 329-122. Woodhall argued that it would be impossibly to “strictly comply” because in order to acquire the marijuana for medical purposes, it may involve transporting it through some places that are “open to the public.” In fact, when Woodhall himself addressed the district court he noted the impossibility by arguing that the only way to absolutely strictly comply would involve the stork dropping it from the sky and onto his property. The ICA, however, disagreed.

HSC Moves Away from Rigid Construction. “Even the rule that penal statutes are to be strictly construed does not permit a court to ignore the legislative intent, nor does it require the rejection of that sense of words used which best harmonizes with the design of the statute or the end in view.” State v. Murray, 63 Haw. 12, 621 P.2d 334 (1980). Accordingly, the HSC delved deeply into the legislative history behind the medical marijuana statutes. It examined the committee reports and the floor debates. The HSC observed that the medical marijuana statutes are incomplete and the law “does not carry out its purpose, leaving qualified patients vulnerable to prosecution. It is especially unclear how medical marijuana is transported to the homes of qualified patients in the first instance, or by qualified patients anywhere outside their homes.” So given that ambiguity—and the fact that the legislators themselves debated the transportation problem, it is even more baffling what the “strict compliance” language in HRS § 329-125 really means.

Applying the Rule of Lenity. In the end, the HSC concluded that the “strict compliance” requirement creates “an impracticality that the legislature could not have intended.” This allowed the HSC to depart from the literal language of the statute. “[D]eparture from a literal construction of a statute is justified when such construction would produce an absurd result and . . . is clearly inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the act[.]” Morgan v. Planning Dep’t, 104 Hawai'i 173, 185, 86 P.3d 982, 994 (2004).

The departure invoked the rule of lenity. “[W]here a criminal statute is ambiguous, it is to be interpreted according to the rule of lenity. Under the rule of lenity, the statute must be strictly construed against the government and in favor of the accused.” State v. Bayly, 118 Hawai'i 1, 15, 185 P.3d 186, 200 (2008). And so, in construing the statute against the government, Woodhall’s interpretation prevailed and he is entitled to an acquittal.

Chief Justice Recktenwald’s Dissent and Concurrence: Once you get the Marijuana, go Straight home. The CJ agreed with the majority that the legislature created an absurd situation: a patient cannot transport marijuana without going through public places. He agreed that there was no statutorily-authorized way for a patient to obtain medical marijuana or transport it to the home. He concurred that a strict compliance of the statutes would render the obtaining and transporting of the marijuana meaningless. But the CJ felt that this did not justify the majority in holding that the patient can transport with the marijuana outside the home once it has been obtained. Because Woodhall did not present any evidence that he was heading home after immediately obtaining the marijuana.

The Dangers of Broad Interpretations. Ironically, the CJ turned to the same legislative record to justify his position. He noted no absurdity in prohibiting free transportation of the marijuana once it has been obtained. The history suggested that any use outside the home or residence should be punished. The CJ noted that the court must be very careful when wading into the murky waters of legislative history. “We cannot change the language of the statute, supply a want, or enlarge upon it in order to make it suit a certain state of facts. . . . Even when the court is convinced in its own mind that the Legislature really meant and intended something not expressed by the phraseology of the Act, it has no authority to depart from the plain meaning of the language used.” State v. Klie, 116 Hawai'i 519, 525, 174 P.3d 358, 364 (2007). The power to construe a statute to avoid absurdities, he argued, is limited in nature and the majority’s construction was too broad.


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