ATF Says No Guns for Medical Marijuana Patients

September 27, 2011

Phillip Smith, Drug War Chronicle

In a memo released last week, the US Department of Justice has notified federal firearms dealers that medical marijuana patients are "addicts" or "unlawful drug users" who cannot legally own weapons or ammunition. A medical marijuana registration card is proof enough to deny a weapons sale, the memo said. That has medical marijuana advocates crying foul, but national gun rights groups -- not so much.

[Update: One national group now has responded; see the statement from Gun Owners of America in the text below.]
The memo was authored by Arthur Herbert, Assistant Director for Enforcement Programs and Services for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF). Herbert said he wrote the memo after receiving "a number of inquiries about the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and its applicability to federal firearms laws."

Herbert cited the section of the federal criminal code that prohibits anyone who is "an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance" from possessing firearms. He reminded firearms dealers that they cannot legally sell guns to people they have reasonable cause to believe are illegal drug users or addicts and wrote that anyone presenting a medical marijuana registration card is providing reasonable cause for the dealer to believe they are illegal drug users or addicts.

Despite the Obama administration's 2009 Justice Department memo famously vowing not to go after patients and providers in compliance with state laws, the federal government has never wavered from its stance that, despite state medical marijuana laws, marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance.

"Any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether or not his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or is addicted to a controlled substance and is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition," Herbert wrote.

While the federal gun law is not new, its restatement with specific reference to medical marijuana patients is, and that has advocates concerned.

"This is more evidence of the Obama administration's malfeasance with regard to medical marijuana," said Dale Gieringer, long-time director of California NORML. "They have a real penchant for over-regulation. We've seen it with the Treasury rules and warnings to banks, we've seen it with the continued arrests by other federal agencies. What's particularly disturbing is that this memo comes from a Justice Department that three years ago said it was going to respect state laws regarding medical marijuana."

"I don't think the feds are going to go after gun dealers selling to medical marijuana patients, but the important this is that if you use this medicine your constitutional rights are forfeit," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "This is just a travesty. Trying to treat medical marijuana patients like second-class citizens and stripping them of their rights as they are dealing with illness is just despicable."

"The possession of a firearm could make a medical marijuana patient vulnerable to additional charges and sentencing if convicted of a federal marijuana crime, and patients should be aware of that," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "However, it is not the federal government's place to prevent medical marijuana patients from owning firearms. Following in the footsteps of the Justice Department, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development, the ATF memo illustrates how yet another arm of the Obama Administration has demonized medical marijuana and the patient community. The ATF memo underscores the need for a comprehensive policy from the Obama administration that treats medical marijuana as the public health issue that it is," Hermes concluded.

While medical marijuana supporters have expressed outrage, groups that can usually be counted on to stand up for Second Amendment rights have been largely silent. Although the National Shooting Sports Foundation was the first place outside ATF to post the open letter, it has not responded to repeated Chronicle requests to comment on the Second Amendment rights of medical marijuana users. Neither has the National Rifle Association.

After this article went to publication, Gun Owners of America executive director Larry Pratt belatedly replied to our requests for comment.

"ATF seems to be dazed now that their Fast & Furious accessory-to-murder scheme has come to light," Pratt said. "Their first blind punch was the demand letter regarding multiple rifle sales in the four southwest border states. Not only is it a stupid attempt to try to blame gun stores for what ATF was telling them to do (or doing it directly themselves), but it is illegal.  Now they want FFLs to profile gun buyers to guess who looks like a marijuana user.  Again, they have no legal authority to ask for such an impossibility. What's not to like?"

One exception is Montana, where both medical marijuana and gun rights are perennial hot topics. There, patients and firearms enthusiasts seem to be on the same page.

"It is egregious that people may be sentenced to years in a federal prison only because they possessed a firearm while using a state- approved medicine," said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

"This is making people pretty crazy here in Montana," said Kate Chowela of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association. "This is a gun owning state, hunting is a big part of our tradition, we have that whole independent frontier thing going on. The government is rescinding the Second Amendment rights of people who use marijuana for their medical conditions. We have had the feeling that this was the policy, but now that we see it in writing for the first time, that really cements it," she added.

The policy may be cemented, but that doesn't mean the law on Second Amendment rights for medical marijuana patients is set in stone.

"It's all well and good for a federal agency to tell us what they think the law is, and that's what ATF has done," said Keith Stroup, founder and current counsel for NORML. But there is no federal or state court decision that has held a medical marijuana patient is disqualified from owning a gun."

"This breaks down like Justice Department opinion in general. They say they have a legal right to deny gun ownership, but they can't force the states to comply with that; they'll just have to enforce the law themselves," Fox said. "This is just a restatement of policy; there have been no court battles over it yet."

There could be one coming. In a case decided in May, Willis v. Winters, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld circuit and appeals court rulings that the Jackson and Washington county sheriffs could not deny concealed weapons permits to medical marijuana patients. The Oregon Sheriff's Association has now petitioned the US Supreme Court, which will consider whether to take up the appeal in an October 7 conference.

"In the Oregon concealed handgun cases, we argued that medical marijuana patients are not 'illegal drug users or addict' as that term is used in federal law, based on the legislative history of the law," explained attorney Leland Berger, who argued the case."The Oregon sheriffs have petitioned the US Supreme Court for certiori," Berger said. "I wrote the court saying that the cases were not certiori worthy and that we waived a response to the petition unless they asked us to file one."

In the meantime, CANORML's Gieringer had some common sense advice for patients and dispensary operators. "If you're a medical marijuana patient, don't mention it when you go buy a gun," recommended Gieringer. But he had a word of warning for dispensary operators. "I assume the feds will be ready to use this if they are prosecuting a dispensary and there were any guns on board," he said.

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