If you’ve ever bought a gun at retail and filled out a Form 4473, you’ve had to check a box stating that you’re not an unlawful user or addicted to any narcotic, including marijuana. Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, or states that have legalized the recreational use of the drug, gun owners are prohibited under federal law, at least in theory, from toking up.
There have been periodic attempts to address the issue at the federal level, but they’ve gone nowhere. In states that have legalized cannabis we’ve seen a wide spectrum of attitudes; from the Honolulu police demanding that medical marijuana users turn over their firearms to law enforcement to Colorado, which has no state-level restrictions on the use of cannabis by legal gun owners.
It’s a sticky issue, to be sure, and one that really needs to be addressed by the federal government, but unfortunately partisan politics has gotten in the way. Democrats are largely in favor of legalizing marijuana and criminalizing gun use, while Republicans hold the opposite point of view; respecting the right to keep and bear arms, but generally advocating to keep cannabis illegal.
A federal judge in Connecticut has weighed in with an interesting decision in a case involving a 31-year old man from East Hartford. James Holmes was suspected by the ATF of illegally selling some 20 firearms over the past few years, but they have no proof. In fact, the only thing that federal officials could nail Holmes on was his marijuana use, which he admitted to ATF agents when they interviewed him back in 2019.
During the visit, Holmes led the investigators to a safe that contained a semi-automatic handgun. Holmes told the agents that his other 20 guns had been stolen along with his mother’s sport-utility vehicle when he left the vehicle running with the guns in the back seat, according to the prosecutor.
He and his mother had reported those thefts to East Hartford police three days earlier.
The agents told Holmes that his illegal use of marijuana made it illegal for him to possess guns, and they took possession of the semi-automatic handgun. Holmes filled out paperwork consenting to the “forfeiture” of the gun to the ATF.
He pleaded guilty in October 2019 to possession of a firearm by an illegal user of a controlled substance.
Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a sentence of 10-16 months in a federal prison, though the U.S. Attorney’s office argued that Holmes should actually receive 18-24 months behind bars, despite having no previous criminal history, never testing positive for drug use, and maintaining a steady and stable work history.
Judge Vanessa L. Bryant, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2007, disagreed when it came time to sentence Holmes. Noting that marijuana use “will soon be legal federally and in Connecticut,” the judge deviated from both the federal sentencing guidelines and the prosecutor’s request and instead sentenced Holmes to three years probation.
In fact, Bryant called Holmes’ case a “tragic situation,” noting that he’ll still have a felony conviction on his record even after cannabis use is legalized at the state and federal level. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the case is the fact that the ATF and the U.S. Attorney decided to waste taxpayer dollars in an attempt to lock up someone accused of a non-violent, possessory offense based on Holmes’ own admission to smoking pot a couple of times a week in an attempt to self-medicate for PTSD, a diagnosis confirmed after his arrest.
This is one of the unintended consequences of the current federal laws, which end up encouraging people to turn to stronger drugs that may be prescribed by a doctor, even though they too can be easily abused. As Pittsburgh, Pennsylvana radio station WESA reported in 2019:
Nancy Black has a host of health problems, including arthritis, fibromyalgia and asthma, and she used to have to take opioids every 12 hours for her pain. However, in 2018 she decided to stop taking her medication, which included OxyContin, and to use medical marijuana instead.
“There’s no easy days when you have [those] kind of [health problems], but I’m taking something safer now, and I feel better,” Black said.
Black is 72 years old, and said her grandson, Shane Murphy, would plead for her to try to use marijuana for her pain.
“I said no because it was illegal and I was a role model,” she said. “Well, it’s legal now and I’m still a role model.”
After getting a medical marijuana card last year, she’s the one advocating for cannabis use and full legalization.
“I just think it’s funny because back in the day I used to be like ‘this is [cannabis strain] White Widow, this is a Sativa, and she’d be like, ‘okay,’” Murphy said. “Now she walks in the dispensary, ‘this is White Widow, this is…’ it’s just funny to see where things are now.”
And now, it’s Black who is pushing for Murphy to get his own medical marijuana card. But he refuses to because it would mean he would lose the right to own guns.
“That’s the only reason I don’t have a medical card is simply because I’m not willing to give up my concealed carry,” he said.
If you’ve got a prescription for Oxycontin, you can buy as many guns as you’d like under federal law. If you have a medical marijuana card, on the other hand, you could be facing federal charges if you go to a gun store and attempt to purchase a firearm.
It’s a bizarre standard, but one that’s likely to remain in place until both parties in Congress recognize a basic truth (regardless of their own opinion on the issue); neither gun ownership nor cannabis use are going to disappear in the United States. In fact, despite decades-long attempts to make both taboo, they seem to be more popular than ever. Are the finite resources of U.S. Attorneys and federal agencies best directed at trying to put recreational or medicinal marijuana users in prison because they also own a firearm? I certainly don’t think so, and it sounds like there’s at least on federal judge on the bench who agrees.