Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Probationer’s Use of Marijuana Justified Prison Sentence

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today rejected a defendant’s argument that his probation should not have been revoked for marijuana use, because he was using marijuana for medical purposes.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Vargas

The defendant committed an armed robbery at a Haverhill convenience store in October of 2012.  The defendant entered the store, pointed what appeared to be a gun at the clerk, and ordered the clerk to give him money.  The clerk turned over around $400 and the defendant fled.  A subsequent police investigation led to the defendant, who admitted to committing the robbery.  He said he used the money he stole to pay off debts and purchase marijuana.  Six months after the crime, the defendant pled guilty and the judge gave him a great deal.  He was placed on probation for three years with a number of conditions.  One of the conditions was that he not use any illegal drugs including marijuana.  The defendant assured the judge he would abide by the probationary conditions, but he was either unable or unwilling to stop using marijuana.  After testing positive twice in the first month he was on probation, the defendant produced a document from a doctor stating that he was approved to use marijuana to treat a “debilitating medical condition.”  The defendant’s probation officer dragged him back into court to face a judge, who found him in violation of his probation and imposed additional conditions.  The judge made it clear that the defendant was not permitted to use marijuana, notwithstanding the certificate he had obtained from a doctor.  Within a few months, when it was clear the defendant was still using marijuana, his probation officer again brought him before a judge.  The judge gave the defendant one last opportunity to avoid prison by continuing the case for one month and ordering him to immediately stop using drugs.  When the defendant continued to use marijuana, the judge finally revoked his probation and sentenced him to 2-4 years in state prison.  The defendant appealed, arguing the doctor’s note he received allowing him to use marijuana should have superseded the probationary conditions.

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected the defendant’s argument because he failed to obtain the doctor’s note prior to violating his probation.  At the time he was placed on probation, the defendant was ordered not to use marijuana and, at that point, he did not have medical authorization to do so.  Further, even if the defendant had a valid medical authorization to use marijuana, he specifically waived that right when he pled guilty and agreed to the judge’s order that he remain marijuana-free.  When imposing probation, a judge can restrict all kinds of otherwise lawful activities and using marijuana is no different.  The Court also expressed skepticism in the timing of the defendant’s receipt of a medical authorization to use marijuana.  Finally, the Court was unimpressed that the defendant agreed to stop using marijuana when he entered into his guilty plea, but then repudiated the agreement by obtaining a medical marijuana certificate.  Ultimately, the Court affirmed the superior court judge’s finding that the defendant had violated his probation and upheld his prison sentence.

This case teaches an important lesson.  While the laws are changing in Massachusetts, it is still usually illegal to use marijuana.  Possessing marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, but it continues to be against the law and, in most cases, will constitute a violation of probation.