Iowa Supreme Court rules out-of-state medical marijuana card is no defense against possession charge

Cannabis bud. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Possessing a valid medical marijuana card issued by another state is not enough to stop someone from being convicted of possession of marijuana in Iowa, a divided Iowa Supreme Court decided in a ruling handed down on Friday. The 4-3 decision came in the case of Pamela Middlekauff, who was convicted of possession of a controlled substance in May 2021.

Middlekauff, a resident of Arizona, was driving across Iowa in December 2019, transporting the dog of a deceased person from Arizona to its new home in Wisconsin, when she was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding in Warren County. While speaking to Middlekauff, the trooper said he could smell marijuana. Middlekauff explained that she had not been smoking marijuana, but had some cannabis flowers in bags in her car, which she had legally purchased from a dispensary in Arizona.

Middlekauff has had a state-issued medical marijuana card in Arizona since 2018, due to chronic pain from osteoarthritis. She presented the card to the trooper, along with a pouch containing “ten individual one-gram pouches of marijuana flowers.” The trooper charged Middlekauff with possession of marijuana.

Middlekauff said she believed her Arizona card meant she could legally possess the marijuana she had purchased there. When her case came to trial, Middlekauff’s attorney argued a medical marijuana card should be considered the same as a prescription, and since under Iowa law it is not illegal to possess a controlled substance if there is a prescription for it, the case should be dismissed. It was not dismissed, and a Warren County jury convicted Middlekauff. She was sentenced to two days in jail (this part of the sentence was suspended), a year’s probation, as well as a $315 fine and $47.25 in fees.

In the appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, Middlekauff’s attorneys again relied on the argument that her medical marijuana card is the same as a prescription or doctor’s order. The relevant section of Iowa Code is in Chapter 124.

It is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess a controlled substance unless such substance was obtained directly from, or pursuant to, a valid prescription or order of a practitioner while acting in the course of the practitioner’s professional practice, or except as otherwise authorized by this chapter.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Susan Christensen did not dispute that Middlekauff was legitimately enrolled in Arizona’s medical marijuana program or that she had legally purchased the marijuana in her car. Instead, Christensen and the three justices who joined her opinion — McDonald, Oxley and Waterman — dismissed the idea that an out-of-state medical marijuana card should be treated the same as an out-of-state prescription or doctor’s order.

Christensen concedes early in her opinion that neither the federal Controlled Substances Act or the Iowa Controlled Substances Act “explicitly define ‘prescription’ or ‘order.’”

In her opinion, Christensen leans heavily on the fact that under Iowa and federal law, “marijuana was listed as a schedule I controlled substance at the time of Middlekauff’s traffic stop and remains listed as such today.” Since federal and state law defines a schedule I drug as one that has “no legitimate medical use,” that means there can’t be a valid prescription for majruana in Iowa.

Christensen does note that Iowa law doesn’t define “valid” when it comes to prescriptions, so she instead relies heavily on federal law, which states a “valid prescription” as one “issued for a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner licensed by law to administer and prescribe the drugs concerned.” Because marijuana is a schedule I drug, no prescription for it can be valid.

In his dissent, Justice Edward Mansfield notes Christensen in her opinion “devotes considerable time and effort to demonstrating that Middlekauff’s conduct was not permitted under federal law or under other Iowa laws.“ According to Mansfield, “That frolic and detour are beside the point,” because Middlekauff was charged with possession under the section of Iowa code quoted above, not under federal law or any other part of Iowa code.

“The State of Arizona issues the registry card as long as the practitioner’s certification is correct and the patient pays the application fee and completes the application,” Mansfield wrote. “So, I think it is fair to say that the marijuana was obtained ‘pursuant to a valid . . . order of a practitioner while acting in the course of the practitioner’s professional practice.’”

Mansfield would have reversed Middlekauff’s conviction and dismissed the charges.

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Mansfield was joined in his dissent by Justice Brent Appel and Justice Matthew McDermott. It’s worth noting that this will be one of the last decisions in which Appel will participate. The justice has submitted his resignation, which will take effect on July 12. Appel is retiring because this year he will turn 72, the mandatory retirement age for justices of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Appel, who was appointed in 2006 by Gov. Tom Vilsack, is the last remaining justice placed on the court by a Democratic governor. All the other justices were appointed by either Gov. Terry Branstad or Gov. Kim Reynolds. After Reynolds appoints a replacement for Appel later this year, she will have appointed five of the court’s seven justices.