Pennsylvania Department of Health v. Mahon (1066 CD 2021)
Case Number: 1066 CD 2021
Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
Clients: Spotlight PA, Ed Mahon
Brief Filed: Jan. 21, 2022
Background: In June 2021, Ed Mahon, a reporter for Spotlight PA, submitted a request to the Pennsylvania Department of Health under the state’s Right to Know Law seeking data and policies related to medical marijuana certifications.
In the first part of his request, Mahon specifically asked for aggregate data for the number of certifications issued for each of the medical conditions considered eligible under the state’s medical marijuana program, including anxiety disorder, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. The second part of his request sought policies or procedures detailing how the agency tracks the use of its medical marijuana program.
The Department of Health denied the reporter’s request. In denying his request for data, the agency argued that the records were confidential under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act. The agency also claimed that policy records Mahon requested did not exist.
Mahon then appealed to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, which ultimately granted Mahon’s request in September 2021. The OOR concluded that the aggregate data requested by Mahon is not confidential under the Medical Marijuana Act and that the agency failed to prove that it does not possess records describing how it tracks its medical marijuana program.
The Department of Health appealed the OOR’s final determination to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, began representing Mahon and Spotlight PA in this matter in October 2021.
Update: On Aug. 19, 2022, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion affirming the Office of Open Records’ decision to grant Mahon access to the requested medical marijuana data. However, the court also reversed the OOR’s determination concerning the disclosure of the department’s written policies about the medical marijuana program. On Jan. 31, 2023, Mahon published a data-driven investigation using more than a million records he obtained from the Department of Health through this litigation. As he wrote in a behind-the-scenes look at his investigation, “Our analysis offers the first comprehensive look at how the decision to add anxiety disorders as a qualifying condition transformed Pennsylvania’s [medical marijuana] program, and, in the eyes of some, made it possible for basically anyone to get a medical marijuana card.” Learn more about the investigation and the legal effort behind it in this RCFP interview with Mahon.
2021-09-02: Office of Open Records final determination
2021-09-30: Agency petition for review
2021-10-12: Paula Knudsen Burke entry of appearance
2021-11-12: OOR certified record
2021-12-22: Brief of Pennsylvania Department of Health
2022-01-21: Brief of Ed Mahon and Spotlight PA
2022-01-21: Supplemental reproduced record