ACLU lawsuit alleges Berks County treatment court programs turn away medical marijuana users
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is suing the Berks County court system, saying its policies that keep people who use medical marijuana out of court-run treatment programs violate state law.
The suit was filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of Damon Monyer, an Air Force combat veteran, who uses medical cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. The Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition is also a plaintiff in the case, saying the Berks policies hurt medical marijuana businesses.
In 2022, Monyer was arrested and charged with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. He also faces a gun charge for carrying a firearm with an expired registration. To avoid prosecution, he applied to the Berks County court-run treatment program for veterans. After being denied a spot in the program, he reapplied. On July 20, he is scheduled for an open court hearing regarding his reapplication.
He was turned down, the lawsuit says, because he uses medical marijuana. ACLU attorneys cite two policies adopted by the 23rd Judicial District in Berks County.
One applies to Mental Health Treatment Court and Veterans Treatment Court, which prohibit the use of medical marijuana while enrolled in the program. The other applies to Drug Treatment Court and DUI Treatment Court, and it prohibits the use of medical marijuana unless the person can show proof of a medical condition that requires it.
The Berks County Court of Common Pleas policy manual for treatment court prohibits the use of various medications, including benzodiazepines for anxiety disorders and stimulants for ADHD. The manual states that medical marijuana will be treated “on a case-by-case basis” and requires a letter addressed to the court from the physician who prescribed cannabis.
Stephen Loney, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says a similar case, Gass v. 52nd Judicial District, established that government entities are not allowed to deny access to public benefits. That case, from 2019, had to do with a Lebanon County policy that prohibited people on parole from using medical marijuana. In 2020, the state Supreme Court ruled the policy was illegal under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act, which states that no one should be “denied any right or privilege” because of their use of medical marijuana.
“The problem appears to be that there are courts and judges across the Commonwealth that either don’t know about the Gass decision, or are turning a blind eye to it, or taking an overly narrow view of it and thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t apply,’ specifically to the context of access to problem solving-courts,” Loney said.
Problem-solving courts include drug, domestic violence, reentry, and veterans treatment courts.
A Berks County District Court official referred a request for comment to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, and the AOPC declined to comment.
ACLU attorneys are asking the Commonwealth Court to strike down Berks County restrictions on medical marijuana users before Monyer’s court hearing on July 20. They are asking the Commonwealth Court to at least preliminarily rule that the Berks court system is not allowed to order Monyer to stop using medical marijuana as a condition to be admitted to the veteran treatment program.
Loney said the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition is pursuing a more long-term challenge through the lawsuit. It wants the Commonwealth Court to invalidate both of the policies and to allow medical marijuana patients to access all court treatment programs in the county.
Meredith Buettner, the coalition’s executive director, said she is hoping a decision on the case could potentially impact all 67 county courts and lead to more “congruent policies” across the Commonwealth.
“I think it is really important for patients and for patient access too – that no matter which court, which county, you’re experiencing the legal system in – you’re treated fairly across all 67 counties,” Buettner said.