Recently, the Ninth Circuit United States Court of Appeals ruled that federal law prohibits individuals who are legally registered medical marijuana users from purchasing firearms.
The court held that federal law neither restricted the plaintiff’s Second Amendment rights nor affected her right to own a gun—the law simply prohibited her from purchasing a gun. This ruling has serious implications for the gun rights of legal marijuana users, particularly given that California voters are likely to pass Proposition 64 on November 8, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Recently, the Ninth Circuit United States Court of Appeals issued a ruling which negatively impacts the gun rights of marijuana users. The court ruled that federal law prohibits individuals who are legally registered medical marijuana users from purchasing firearms. In Wilson V. Lynch, Nevada resident and plaintiff S. Rowan Wilson tried to lawfully purchase a firearm. But the firearms dealer refused to sell the gun to her because she possessed a medical marijuana card, and federal law prohibits selling guns to known users of illicit drugs.
Wilson brought suit challenging the federal statute (18 U.S.C. § 922) which not only makes it illegal for firearms dealers to sell guns to known drug users, but also prohibits individuals who use unlawful drugs from purchasing firearms and ammunition.
In her lawsuit, Wilson also challenged U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) regulations pursuant to the ATF’s open letter of September 9, 2011 which reinforced 18 U.S.C. § 922, and stated that marijuana is an unlawful drug regardless of state legislation legalizing medical or recreational use. According to federal law, marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means it has a high potential for abuse and there is currently no accepted medical treatment.
Guns and drugs don’t mix
The courts have long held that government has the power to enact reasonable restrictions on the people’s rights if doing so protects a compelling and sufficiently narrow public interest. Preventing gun violence by illicit drug users is a legitimate and substantial public interest due to extensive evidence documenting a link between illicit drug use and violence.
For example, in United States v. Carter (2014), the Fourth Circuit Appellate Court in Virginia cited several studies linking drug use—including marijuana—and violent behavior. The Fourth Circuit also stated that government did not need to “prove a causal link between drug use and violence” to prohibit drug users from purchasing firearms, but, simply, a correlation was adequate to restrict their constitutional gun rights.
Interestingly, researchers point out the higher crime rate among tobacco users when compared to non-smokers but assert that smoking—in and of itself—does not cause criminal behavior. There is simply a greater likelihood of crime among smokers. Further, there is a stronger link between alcohol and violence than for many illicit drugs, leading many to question where to draw the line on gun rights.
Ninth Circuit ruling
The Ninth Circuit court rejected Wilson’s argument that the ATF failed to enable public comment in that the 9/9/2011 letter was an interpretive rule which is enforced without public input. The court also upheld the underlying federal statute and concluded that it was reasonable for a gun dealer to assume that someone who has a medical marijuana card is a marijuana user, despite Wilson’s assertion that she merely obtained the card to show support for marijuana legalization.
In its ruling, the court found that Wilson was not directly harmed by the law, and as such, she had no standing to sue. Regarding the issue of her attempted purchase, the court held that the law neither restricted the plaintiff’s Second Amendment gun rights nor affected her right to own a gun—the law simply prohibited her from purchasing a gun. As such, if Wilson surrendered her medical marijuana card, there would be no restrictions preventing her from legally purchasing a firearm.
Gun rights in the era of marijuana legalization
As the states continue to relax restrictions on marijuana use, more cases like Wilson are likely to end up in federal court.
Amanda Reiman, California marijuana law and policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance argues that alcoholics and users of legally prescribed opiate painkillers are not subject to the same discrimination that medical marijuana users currently face. Rowan’s attorney, Chaz Rainey, observed that something is wrong when a person on a no-fly list can still legally purchase firearms while medical marijuana users cannot similarly exercise their gun rights.
Many say that the federal law needs to be updated and marijuana should be removed from Schedule I. Until this happens—if it ever does—individuals who use medical or recreational marijuana will continue to be denied the right to purchase firearms.