Jason Harris’ heart sank as the blue lights of a police car began to flash in his rearview while he was hurrying to work one morning.
It’s been a few months since then, and he’s still kicking himself for speeding down the street near his Lehi home.
But the initial traffic stop was only the beginning of Harris’ troubles. Because when he rolled down his window to hand over his license and registration, the officer caught a whiff of marijuana.
“The officer very well may have smelled cannabis,” Harris, 44, said during a Wednesday news conference. “Because I did have some.”
Harris says he uses cannabis medicinally to treat his migraines and other ailments related to a brain tumor. And on Wednesday, advocates presented him as the first Utah patient to be prosecuted for marijuana possession after the December passage of the state’s medical cannabis law.
That day, Dec. 11, Harris was carrying a month’s supply of cannabis in a bag in his backseat. He tried to explain to the officers that he was a cannabis patient and that he was allowed to use the substance under the new state law. They only laughed and put him in handcuffs, he said.
Police ultimately released him but charged him with possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. Which meant that the father of four had to face his family, employers and community with the news that he was facing criminal prosecution. The worst part was being fired as head coach of his son’s basketball team and having to share the embarrassing reason with all the players and their parents.
"I had hoped that these charges would be dismissed immediately upon review. But they were not," he said.
Harris’ attorney, Steven Burton, said his client was not technically in full compliance with the state’s new medical cannabis law. He did have a qualifying medical condition under the law and had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis as a treatment, two elements of earning legal protections under the new law. But police officers caught him carrying raw cannabis flower outside of the legally-required blister pack, and the lack of packaging could’ve presented a problem, Burton said.
“The problem is that in the criminal justice system, you get some prosecutors who focus on the letter of the law,” the attorney explained during the news conference.
Fortunately, Harris says, with help from the Utah Patients Coalition and his attorneys, prosecutors this week agreed to drop the charges.
Advocates with the coalition and the libertarian Libertas Institute welcomed the news and said they hope other prosecutors follow suit.
"Rational people determined that a jury would not convict Jason, despite not being in perfect compliance with the law," DJ Schanz of the patients coalition said Wednesday.
Connor Boyack, who founded the Libertas Institute and helped craft the state’s cannabis law, said the bill’s size and complexity make perfect compliance challenging for patients. Work is ongoing to tweak the law and make it more patient-friendly, he said.
For instance, SB161, a bill sponsored this session by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, would extend legal protections to parents or spouses of a qualifying patients, so they’re not penalized for carrying medical cannabis on behalf of their ailing relatives. The bill, which would make a number of other small adjustments, has already passed the Senate and is in the House.