Those who find medical benefit in using marijuana have many reasons to celebrate. In the United States, 33 states have legalized the medical use of marijuana. Most European and Latin American countries now permit medically approved cannabis use, along with Canada, Israel, Thailand, and South Korea. Some U.S. states have even extended specific workplace protections to employees registered as medical marijuana “cardholders.”
However, serious concerns remain for medical cannabis patients. Nearly all marijuana products remain strictly prohibited by federal U.S. law; therefore, anyone who uses, possesses or dispenses the drug can still technically be charged with a felony by federal law enforcement. Even state-level authorities have arrested registered medical consumers due to ambiguities created by the transition from prohibitive to permissive laws.
Travel across state or national lines is particularly dangerous for users of medical marijuana. Regulations vary sharply among states and even among different regions within individual states. Only seven states recognize medical marijuana rights for residents of other states. Most airports also forbid cannabis possession. European and Latin American countries, too, feature a bewildering array of contrasting regulations, while most of Asia and the Middle East prohibit the substance altogether.
In light of these risks, how can medical marijuana cardholders best safeguard their rights? First of all, these patients should be closely familiar with the laws of their country, state, and locality regarding what specific products, forms of distribution, quantities, and types of use are permitted. Second, these individuals should generally refrain from bringing the substance along during air travel or any travel across state or national boundaries.
Importantly, these patients should be aware of their rights in the event that police officers search or attempt to search their vehicles or homes. In the U.S., if an officer does not have a clear and obvious reason for suspicions, such as a strong smell or plainly visible evidence, then they need either a warrant or voluntary consent to conduct a search.
The common practice of asset forfeiture by law enforcement can lead to considerable losses for medical marijuana cardholders. Police have the authority to seize any property connected to a suspected crime. Individuals whose property (such as medically approved marijuana) is taken should request written documentation of the asset seizure; this documentation can be used in court proceedings to have the property returned to the owner. Unfortunately, individuals do not have the constitutional right to a lawyer for civil proceedings to reclaim their property and are therefore responsible for legal costs.
People who respond well to the therapeutic use of marijuana have seen significant policy gains in recent years. Unfortunately, regionally disparate legal systems, among other tensions in this rapidly shifting area of law, present many risks for these individuals. The best way to navigate this treacherous legal terrain is by learning it well— and staying up-to-date as it continues to change.