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ACLU Settles Lawsuit Over Smithfield Anti-Medical Marijuana Ordinance

Posted: July 02, 2019|Category: Active Case Discrimination Rights of the Disabled Medical Marijuana The "War on Drugs"

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of a lawsuit it filed two years ago against a Smithfield ordinance that the ACLU argued was an attempt to undermine the state’s medical marijuana law by imposing significant burdens on patients’ access to treatment. Under the settlement agreement, the Town has agreed to repeal the ordinance and pay $30,000 in attorneys’ fees.

In September 2017, R.I. Superior Court Judge Richard Licht issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ordinance, which the ACLU had called a troubling restriction on the rights of medical marijuana patients. Efforts to resolve the case without further court action stalled until the election of a new Town Council earlier this year.

The Town’s ordinance imposed a number of onerous constraints on the possession and growth of medical marijuana, despite, and directly contrary to, stringent regulations already in place under Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law. Among other restrictions, the ordinance limited the growing of medical marijuana to two mature plants and two seedlings, and only at a patient’s primary residence, even though state law specifically allows for the cultivation of 12 mature plants and outlines where medical marijuana can be grown. The ordinance also completely barred caregivers from growing medical marijuana anywhere in the town and required patients to disclose their identity to a number of municipal authorities, which would undermine their right to confidentiality under the law. 

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys C. Alexander Chiulli and Matthew Plain, was on behalf of two licensed medical marijuana patients – listed as Jane Does to protect their confidentiality – and the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition (RIPAC), a medical marijuana public education organization. In its 2017 decision granting the injunction, the Court said that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that enforcement of the ordinance would cause “irreparable harm” by leading to the “unwarranted disclosure of Plaintiffs’ status as medical marijuana cardholders” contrary to state law, that Town interference in the state’s detailed medical marijuana system “could impair the public interest,” and that the hardships to the plaintiffs in terms of their “increased difficulty or inability to either grow or obtain their medicine” weighed in favor of issuing an injunction. The ACLU had unsuccessfully urged the Town Council not to adopt the ordinance because of its adverse impact on local residents suffering from serious illnesses.

After the court’s ruling, the ACLU attorneys sought to settle the case so as to avoid the need for further court hearings or appeals. The Town Council that had passed the ordinance resisted, but with the election of a new Council this past year, a settlement has been reached. The lawsuit will be formally dismissed once the Council rescinds the ordinance, which is expected to occur in the next month or so.

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney C. Alexander Chiulli said today: “We are pleased that the newly elected Town Council respects the rights of medical marijuana patients.  This settlement reflects the right outcome for a clearly unlawful and unsubstantiated ordinance that should never have been enacted.”  

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown stated: “The ACLU is hopeful that this settlement will prompt other municipalities to think twice before burdening patients in their communities with similar onerous restrictions. This is, after all, a medicine for people with documented illnesses, and municipalities should not be playing doctor.”

For more information about this case, RIPAC v. Town of Smithfield, click here.

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