Michigan’s Supreme Court released a unanimous opinion on May 21, reversing a widely impactful decision of the Court of Appeals that restricted medical marihuana patients’ driving privileges.
The COA’s opinion in People v Rodney L. Koon was issued on April 17, 2012 and it erroneously held that the Michigan Vehicle Code “prohibits operating a motor vehicle with any amount of a schedule 1 controlled substance in the driver’s body, [even] if the driver used marihuana under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA).”
Over the last year, the COA’s Koon decision has caused numerous medical marihuana patients throughout Michigan to receive convictions for driving with trace amounts of the physiologically active component of marihuana in their blood.
Michigan’s public health code states that a controlled substance fits within schedule 1 if “the substance has high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or lacks accepted safety for use in treatment under medical supervision.” Michigan law also provides that a person “shall not operate a vehicle … if the person has in his or her body any amount of a controlled substance listed in schedule 1 under … the public health code…”
However, the more recently enacted MMMA provides that the “act shall not permit any person to “[o]perate, navigate, or be in actual physical control of any motor vehicle, aircraft, or motorboat while under the influence of marihuana.” Further, as the Supreme Court noted in their opinion, the MMMA instructs that: “All other acts and parts of acts inconsistent with this act do not apply to the medical use of marihuana as provided for by this act.”
The Supreme Court relied primarily on those MMMA provisions, and held that the Koon “case requires us to decide whether the MMMA’s protection supersedes the Michigan Vehicle Code’s prohibition and allows a registered patient to drive when he or she has indications of marihuana in his or her system but is not otherwise under the influence of marihuana. We conclude that it does.”
The Supreme Court summarized the Koon case in their opinion and noted that the Grand Traverse district and circuit courts both “concluded that the MMMA’s prohibition against driving while under the influence of marihuana was inconsistent with the Michigan Vehicle Code’s zero-tolerance provision, that the MMMA superseded the zero-tolerance provision, and that defendant was protected from prosecution unless the prosecution could prove that he was impaired by the presence of marihuana in his body. The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the MMMA yielded to the Legislature’s determination … that it is unsafe for a person to drive with any marihuana in his or her system.”
Mr. Koon was originally represented by attorney James Hunt, of Traverse City, during the trial court proceedings and while the case was pending with the Court of Appeals. Mr. Hunt also participated in the oral arguments the COA held in the Koon case on February 8, 2012.
Back on November 16, 2010, Grand Traverse Circuit Judge Philip E. Rodgers originally denied the county prosecutor’s appeal in the Koon case, finding that because “the Defendant is a registered medical marijuana patient, the Plaintiff is prohibited from using the standard jury instruction indicating that the bodily presence of a Schedule I controlled substance is a per se violation of MCL § 257.625(8). The MMMA, which supersedes MCL § 257.625 et seq., states that qualified patients are proscribed from operating a motor vehicle “while under the influence of marijuana.” Therefore, evidence of impairment is a necessary requirement. The Plaintiff has not alleged the Defendant’s ability to drive was impaired by the presence of THC in his body, nor that the Defendant’s actions and mannerisms at that time indicated a visible or substantial impairment with regard to his driving. The specific circumstances of this case require evidence of Defendant’s impairment.”
After the Court of Appeals reversed Judge Rodger’s ruling, several defense attorneys worked together to file an appeal with the Supreme Court. Attorneys Mary Chartier, Thomas Loeb, Matthew Newburg and Eric Misterovich argued in their appellate brief that the MMMA “protects qualifying patients who are engaged in the medial use of marihuana. This protection allows a qualifying patient to operate a motor vehicle while internally possessing medical marihuana as long as the qualifying patient is not under the influence of marihuana. However, the Court of Appeals held that operating under the influence of marihuana means that a qualifying patient cannot operate a motor vehicle with any amount of marihuana in his system. This is in direct contravention of the language of the MMA, and prior law regarding what operating under the influence means.”
The Supreme Court agreed with the arguments made by Koon’s appellate attorneys and decided the case without even hearing oral arguments or allowing the Grand Traverse County Prosecutor to file a reply brief. They “reverse[d] the judgment of the Court of Appeals, reinstate[d] the judgment of the Grand Traverse Circuit Court, and remand this case to the 86th District Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”
NOTE: You can view the Court of Appeals’ February 8, 2012 oral arguments in the Koon case here: https://vimeo.com/36475549