Conflicting state and federal marijuana laws have caused problems for medical marijuana patients who are gun owners.
A handful of U.S. states with legalized medical marijuana are working to prevent patients participating in the state-regulated program from owning guns. Most recently, it’s been police departments in Hawaii and Delaware that have made efforts to prohibit medical marijuana patients from firearm ownership.
In Hawaii, only months after the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened, the Honolulu Police Department sent letters to registered medical marijuana patients demanding they surrender any firearms before community backlash caused the agency to backtrack on its decision.
“This is a new area of concern for cities across the country, and we in Honolulu want to develop a policy that’s legally sound and serves our community,” Hawaii Police Department Chief Susan Ballard said in a news release, announcing the agency would no longer require patients to turn in their guns but would deny new firearm permits. “Formulating the policy will take time, but we want to do it right.”
In Delaware, law enforcement officials recently urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that would prohibit marijuana users from buying guns. Camden Police Chief William Bryson told a state task force studying marijuana legalization that marijuana users should be required to have a certification on their driver’s license and prohibited from owning firearms.
“It would make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure that prohibited people are not buying firearms in Delaware,” Bryson said.
Two years back, registered patients in Illinois received letters from state police telling them their firearms cards were being revoked before the agency corrected what they said was a mistake.
Previously in Oregon, the issue landed in the courts after sheriffs in two counties withheld concealed handgun licenses from medical marijuana patients. The Oregon Supreme Court eventually ordered the sheriffs to allow the gun licenses.
Ohio, which is preparing to roll-out its medical marijuana program, may also soon face a battle over gun rights for registered patients. Officials are telling people who register with the state to legally use medical marijuana that they will be prohibited from possessing firearms.
What Law Could Prevent Medical Marijuana Patients from Owning Guns?
Several states are citing the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 as legal grounds for prohibiting medical marijuana patients from buying guns. The federal law regulates the firearms industry, requiring the manufacturing, dealing, and importing of firearms by those who are licensed only.
The Act was enhanced in 1993 with the passing of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established a background check system. Under Category 3 of that law, “unlawful users” of controlled substances are prohibited from purchasing firearms.
While 29 U.S. states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, the substance remains illegal under federal law. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. This means under federal law that medical marijuana patients can be considered “unlawful users” of a controlled substance.
It’s this conflict in federal and state cannabis policy that explains why medical marijuana patients, despite following state law, find themselves in some uncertainty as to whether they can legally possess guns.
Anyone interested in buying a gun must apply for a federal firearm owner’s identification (FOID) by filling out Form 4473 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). One question in that form reads: “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.” Those who do not answer honestly on the form can be charged with a felony.
The ATF in a 2011 letter reiterated that under federal law, anyone who is an “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” is prohibited from possessing, transporting, shipping, or receiving firearms and ammunition. The letter specifically noted that there are no exceptions for state-legal medical marijuana use.
“There are no exceptions in federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such is sanctioned by state law,” the memo reads.
Can Medical Marijuana Users be Responsible Gun Owners?
While concern over whether medical marijuana use could influence the ability of patients to remain responsible gun owners is driving the attempts to restrict ownership, there is no scientific evidence supporting that argument. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention avoid conducting research into firearms, and because marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, it’s very difficult for scientists to obtain any funding for studies related to cannabis.
Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that a ban preventing medical marijuana cardholders from purchasing firearms is not in violation of the Second Amendment. The court concluded that marijuana and other drugs “raises the risk of irrational or unpredictable behavior with which gun use should not be associated.”
In response to the ruling, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said the claim that marijuana users are more prone to violence is untrue.
“Responsible adults who use cannabis in a manner that is compliant with the laws of their states ought to receive the same legal rights and protections as other citizens,” he said.
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