HARRISBURG — The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a lawsuit seeking to force county courts statewide to allow people to use medical marijuana while under probation.

The lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court, targets the probation system in Lebanon County, where there are at least 60 people on probation who are also using medical marijuana, said Vic Walczak, ACLU Pennsylvania's legal director.

If the Commonwealth Court rules in favor of the ACLU, the decision would impact county-run probation systems across the state, he said.

"Judges may not like the medical marijuana law, but they have to follow it," Walczak said.

The ACLU has identified at least six other counties — Elk, Forest, Indiana, Jefferson, Lycoming and Northampton — where those on probation have been told they can’t use medical marijuana, Walczak said.

The court systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh allow people to use medical marijuana while on probation, Walczak said.

The ACLU hasn’t compiled a comprehensive list of counties barring those on probation from using medical marijuana and the organization would like to know if other counties are using similar bans, he said.

In an interview for CNHI’s five-day September series exploring the state’s medical marijuana program, Northumberland County President Charles Saylor said that county also bars those on probation from using medical marijuana.

“We have taken the position that they still cannot obtain marijuana and cannot use it while under supervision or in our treatment programs," he said. "We don’t think it’s productive toward their recovery.”

Walczak said that ACLU officials don't immediately plan to take legal action in the other counties, because a Commonwealth Court decision in their favor will force all the counties to comply.

Those on probation in Lebanon County were notified on Sept. 1 that any traces of marijuana – whether for medical use or otherwise, had to be out of their systems by Oct. 1, Walczak said.

The plaintiffs represented by the ACLU in the Lebanon County case include Melissa Gass, a 41-year-old woman who uses medical marijuana to prevent seizures and is on probation for an assault charge stemming from a fight with her husband. Gass was joined at a press conference at the ACLU offices in Harrisburg by another of the plaintiffs, Ashley Bennett, a 33-year-old woman who used medical marijuana for PTSD and is on probation due to a conviction for possessing marijuana.

Questioned by Walczak about the benefits of using medical marijuana, Gass said the drug allows her to function more normally than the medication that she must take when medical marijuana isn’t available to her.

“I’m able to be a mom,” she said.

Bennett said that while she suffers negative health impacts from having to use medication other than marijuana because of the court’s ban, she’s afraid of violating the rules set by the court.

“I’ve abided by everything,” she said.

In September, judges in Lycoming County ruled that a man on probation in that county couldn’t use medical marijuana, Walczak said. The ACLU is appealing that decision to the state Superior Court, he said. But that appeals process will likely take more than a year, and the ACLU hopes that the challenge to the Lebanon County ban will be resolved more quickly.

“There’s real harm” to the ban on medical marijuana use by those on probation, he said. “We can’t wait a year.”

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