Medical Marijuana Patient Records Are Private, Court Rules

News Release: 
Monday, October 11, 2010

A federal court in Yakima has quashed a subpoena that demanded the medical information of 17 medical marijuana patients, citing the need to protect their privacy. The ACLU represented the medical clinic that holds the patients’ records.

Robert Whaley, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington, issued an order on Sept. 4, rejecting an effort by the federal government to obtain copies of medical files kept by The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation Medical Clinic (THCF). The clinic maintains offices in 11 states where patients can be seen by doctors who specialize in the medical use of marijuana.

“This ruling recognizes the importance of respecting the privacy of medical marijuana patients,” said Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington Marijuana Education Protect, who represented the clinic along with Adam Wolf and Graham Boyd of the national ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “Allowing the federal government to go after patient records would deter people from exercising their rights. Patients would be afraid to seek medical marijuana, and physicians would hesitate to recommend it.”

On May 24, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas to the state of Oregon’s medical marijuana program and to the THCF, demanding applications for registration, doctor recommendations and other documents regarding 17 medical marijuana patients. The subpoena was tied to a federal investigation of an alleged marijuana distributor. The government claimed that it needed the records to estimate the quantities of marijuana distributed by the suspect.

The ACLU said that the government’s request was too broad. Releasing the records would put at risk sensitive information about the patients’ conditions, and would violate the confidentiality privilege between patients and doctors. The state of Oregon also argued that its own laws required it to protect the privacy of patients registered in the state’s medical marijuana program. Both parties said the records would be irrelevant to the investigation anyway, since they did not include specific amounts of cannabis distributed to patients.

In his ruling, Judge Whaley agreed that the government’s subpoena was overly broad, and that the need to protect the privacy of patients outweighed the government’s need to access the records.

“Absent a further showing of necessity and relevance, compliance with the subpoena would impact significant State and medical privacy interests and is unreasonable,” Whaley wrote.