Idaho Activist Fights for Medical Necessity Defense

Serra Frank is fighting for medical and legal justice in a state that is hostile to cannabis and the people who depend on it.
Idaho Activist Fights for Medical Necessity Defense
Courtesy of Serra Frank

An Idaho cannabis activist is scheduled to appear in the state district court on Thursday for oral arguments in her appeal of three marijuana possession convictions. Serra Frank, a medical marijuana patient from Boise, is fighting to have her convictions overturned on the basis of medical necessity.

Frank has a serious bladder condition known as interstitial cystitis, which causes severe and chronic pain for her. She described in an interview with High Times the effect that the condition has on her health.

“My bladder doesn’t expand properly,” Frank said. “When a [healthy] bladder fills up, it expands like a balloon. Mine doesn’t. Instead, it stiffens and cracks and bleeds, kind of like an inner tube that’s been left out in the sun.”

Interstitial cystitis affects some patients so severely and for so long it is classified as a disability by the Social Security Administration and can have a devastating impact on those who live with the disease.

“The quality of life for people with my condition is so severe that we are three to four times more likely to commit suicide because of the chronic pain,” said Frank. “We’ve lost a lot of people that way.”

There is no known cure for interstitial cystitis and traditional treatments such as opiates, analgesics, and anti-inflammatory drugs can have varying degrees of effect and often come with serious side effects. Since 2004, Frank has chosen to treat her condition with cannabis, the medicine that provides the most relief for her. Even with it, she is in pain on a daily basis, but cannabis allows her to function in her busy life which includes being a mother of three children.

For Frank, using her medicine of choice comes with risk. Idaho has no provisions legalizing any forms of medical marijuana. She has been working for a change in cannabis policy for more than 10 years and is involved in groups including the Idaho chapter of Moms for Marijuana, Compassionate Idaho, and Boise Hemp Fest.

Idaho Activist Fights for Medical Necessity Defense
Courtesy of Serra Frank

Arrested at Protest

To gain support for legalization, Frank and others organized a smoke-out demonstration that was to be held on the steps of the state capitol building in Boise on New Year’s Day, 2016. Three days before the protest, Frank was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for a traffic violation. During the encounter with law enforcement, she was searched and her medicine was discovered by police, who arrested her for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. She was also charged with obstruction for her initial refusal to exit the car and submit to a search without a warrant.

Frank admits that she was angry with the situation, and says she was determined to commit an act of civil disobedience at the planned protest. Idaho State Police, who have jurisdiction at the capitol, had been informed of the group’s plans in the interest of carrying out a peaceful protest.

Before Frank could even light her joint at the demonstration, Idaho State Police intervened and said they would not allow Frank to spark up. Instead, she surrendered her medicine to officers and was taken into custody.

At her trial, Frank had hoped to present evidence to the jury of her condition and the medical necessity for her to use cannabis and possess it at all times. However, despite a 1990 Idaho Supreme Court ruling that found a defendant in a marijuana cultivation case was entitled to present evidence of such a defense, the judge in Frank’s case ruled that her doctor could not testify on her behalf. She was also not allowed to present any evidence about her health problems, including documentation from doctors in Washington and Oregon that concluded she could benefit from medical marijuana.

“I have had medical recommendations [for cannabis] before but they wouldn’t even let me talk about my medical condition in court,” Frank said.

Without the right to present a defense of medical necessity at her trial, Frank was convicted on three counts of marijuana possession and three counts of possession of paraphernalia, although the jury acquitted her on the obstruction charge. She is appealing the convictions based on the judge’s decision to deny the presentation of evidence of her medical condition and to instruct the jury on the medical necessity defense. If her current appeal in state district court in Ada County is denied, Frank plans to take her case to the Idaho Supreme Court. Her sentence of probation, fines, and a suspended jail term has been stayed by the court during appeal.

While waiting for the appeals process to go through the court system, Frank has moved to Oregon where she can obtain and use her medicine legally. But even as a medical marijuana refugee, she continues her work for cannabis policy reform in her home state, including her work with Legalize Idaho. The coalition of activist groups is campaigning for a recreational marijuana legalization initiative and plans to complete a petition to put a measure on the state ballot in the coming weeks.

Frank says she is still upset by the situation in her home state, but she wants to return so she can be closer to the rest of her family, including her parents.

“Idaho’s home,” she said. “I’d like to go back there. I feel like I’m in exile here.”

But until at least the medicinal use of cannabis is legalized, she plans to stay in Oregon.

“Unfortunately, Idaho is bad for my health,” she said.

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