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Commonwealth v. Hutchins

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Joseph Hutchins (defendant) was charged with possession of marijuana and in response filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing the use of marijuana was a medical necessity.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In order for the defense of necessity to be applicable the harm the defendant is seeking to avoid must far exceed the harm that would result from the violation of law.

    Facts.

    Joseph Hutchins was charged with possession of marijuana. Hutchins argued he had been diagnosed with Scleroderma, a disease that results in scar tissue build up throughout the body, and because no cure existed he was required to use marijuana the alleviate the symptoms, which included fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Hutchins informed doctors that using marijuana seemed to alleviate his symptoms and while doctors did not admits the marijuana fully treated the disease, they did note that it seemed to alleviate the symptoms. However, Hutchins failed to obtain a prescription for the marijuana or be approved for participation in a research study on the medical benefits of marijuana usage. Hutchins filed a motion to dismiss based on medical necessity for the marijuana usage, submitting affidavits, excerpts from his medical records, and literature on the medical benefits of marijuana. The trial court ruled medical necessity was not an applicable defense to Hutchins’ charge of marijuana possession.

    Issue.

    Whether the defense of necessity is only applicable when the harm the defendant is seeking to avoid far exceeds the harm that will result from the violation of the law?

    Held.

    Yes, a defendant may only proceed with the defense of necessity to excuse a crime committed under the stress of imminent danger and the harm that will result if the defendant complies with the law will substantially outweigh the harm that would occur if the defendant violates the law.

    Dissent.

    The public policy behind laws designed to prevent drug usage would not be significantly harmed if a jury were allowed to decide whether using marijuana for medical purposes related to symptoms stemming from an incurable disease is a medical necessity.

    Discussion.

    Traditionally, the necessity defense is based on the understanding that the value afforded by the law may be superseded in certain circumstances where the application of the law is unfair. When a court evaluates whether the harm that will result through a defendant complying with the law is substantially outweighed by the harm that would occur through violations of the law, the court must determine: (1) did the defendant face imminent danger, (2) did the defendant reasonably expect the their actions would deflect the harm, (3) was there no legal or or effective alternative, (4) did the legislature effectively repeal the defense. Here, while relief from symptoms of an incurable disease is an important consideration, the harm sought to be avoided does not substantially outweigh the harm caused through the violation of the law. Such a decision would compromise the enforcement of drug laws and undermine the legislature determinations behind these drug laws.


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