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Pennsylvania MMJ Patients Face Choice: Cannabis or Guns?

January 16, 2018
Phil Gruver poses for a photograph with his Pennsylvania medical marijuana card in Emmaus, Pa. on Jan. 10. As gun-loving Pennsylvania becomes the latest state to operate a medical marijuana program, with the first dispensary on track to begin sales next month, authorities are warning patients that federal law bars marijuana users from having guns or ammunition. Gruver is weighing what to do with his .22-caliber rifle and a handgun he keeps for home defense. (Matt Rourke/AP)
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The federal government says grass and guns don’t mix, and that is putting gun owners who use medical marijuana — and the strongly pro-gun-rights administration of President Donald Trump — in a potentially uncomfortable position.

“They can have their guns or their marijuana, but not both.”
John T. Adams, PA District Attorneys Assn.

As gun-loving Pennsylvania becomes the latest state to operate a medical cannabis program, with the first dispensary on track to begin sales next month, authorities are warning patients that federal law bars marijuana users from having guns or ammunition.

“They’re going to have to make a choice,” said John T. Adams, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “They can have their guns or their marijuana, but not both.”

That’s the official line, but the reality of how the policy might be enforced in Pennsylvania and other states is a little muddier. That includes the question of whether people who already own guns might have to surrender them, instead of just being prohibited from making new purchases.

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The political sensitivity was underscored Friday when Pennsylvania regulators reversed themselves and announced its registry of medical cannabis patients will not be available, as was previously planned, through the state’s law enforcement computer network.

Phil Gruver, a professional auto detailer from Emmaus who received a state medical marijuana card in mid-December, is weighing what to do with his .22-caliber rifle and a handgun he keeps for home defense.

“It’s a violation of my Second Amendment rights,” Gruver said. “I don’t know of any time anyone’s been using marijuana and going out and committing acts of violence with a gun. Most of the time they just sit on their couch and eat pizza.”

State laws allowing medical or, more recently, recreational use of cannabis have long been at odds with the federal prohibition on gun ownership by those using marijuana. But the government has traditionally taken a hands-off approach. Since 2014, Congress has forbidden the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute people who grow, sell and use medical marijuana.

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The picture has become murkier under Trump, a Republican whose attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has long denounced the drug. Sessions recently rescinded a Barack Obama-era policy that was deferential to states’ permissive marijuana laws. Now, federal prosecutors in states that allow drug sales must decide whether to crack down on the marijuana trade.

It’s not clear what impact the new policy will have on gun owners who use cannabis as medicine, or even how many people fit the bill. Nor is it clear whether any people who use legally obtained medical marijuana have been prosecuted for owning a gun, although the existence of medical marijuana registries in some states, including Pennsylvania, has some patients concerned.

More than 800,000 guns are sold or transferred in Pennsylvania annually, and more than 10,000 people in the state have signed up for medical marijuana. The registry change on Friday makes it much less likely the state’s medical marijuana users will be flagged when going through a federal gun sales background check.

A spokeswoman for Dave Freed, the new U.S. attorney in Harrisburg, said only that criminal investigations and prosecutions “will be based on a fair and transparent fact-intensive inquiry of individual cases.” State police said it’s up to prosecutors to decide when to bring a case.

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The Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has left no doubt where it stands. Last year, the ATF spelled out the marijuana prohibition in boldface type on gun purchase forms.

People who drink heavily or use potent but legal drugs such as opioids or antidepressants can still own a gun.

“Any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medical purposes … is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition,” ATF spokeswoman Janice L. Kemp said in an email to The Associated Press.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department referred questions about medical marijuana and guns enforcement to local federal prosecutors and a recent memo from Sessions that does not specifically address the issue.

In Ohio, which has authorized a medical marijuana program, the office of the U.S. attorney for the northern part of the state, Justin Herdman, has said Sessions’ guidance won’t change his case-by-case approach.

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The gun-ownership ban has withstood at least one legal challenge. An appeals court in San Francisco, rejecting a challenge on Second Amendment grounds, said in 2016 that Congress reasonably concluded marijuana and other drugs raise the risk of unpredictable behavior.

Meanwhile, some state and local officials, particularly in law enforcement, have sought to crack down.

William Bryson, chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council, told state lawmakers in December that people who use marijuana for medical or recreational purposes should be required to have a designation on their driver’s licenses. That would make it easier, he said, for police to enforce the ban.

And last month, a police chief in Hawaii publicized and then quickly rescinded a directive that medical marijuana patients had to give up their handguns. Two people turned in their weapons.

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But marijuana activists predict a backlash should federal prosecutors begin going after gun owners who use legally obtained medical marijuana.

The issue has been largely theoretical, but there would be quick pushback if the federal government took a more aggressive stance, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Between 1998 and 2014, nearly 100,000 prospective gun purchasers went home empty-handed because they were flagged as using illegal drugs, according to the ATF. But the agency could not say how many of those used medical or recreational marijuana.

Dean Hazen, an Urbana, Illinois, businessman who helps broker online gun purchases, said a 75-year-old client with a medical marijuana card was turned down when his state firearm-owner identification card was run through the federal background check system.

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“He’s got a collection of guns at home,” Hazen said, “and he’s a model citizen.”

Even before his administration took the medical marijuana registry off the Pennsylvania law-enforcement computer network, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, sought to assure people the state has no plans to take their guns. And last week, state House Republican Leader Dave Reed urged residents to call their congressional representative and “urge them to make gun ownership legal for medical marijuana card holders.”

Kim Stolfer, head of the Pennsylvania organization Firearms Owners Against Crime, pointed out that people who drink heavily or use potent but legal drugs such as opioids or antidepressants can still own a gun.

“You have people that are advancing up in age that need medical marijuana and might have, say, 50 firearms and just realized they sacrificed all of those,” Stolfer said. “Where are they going to turn them in and how are they going to get rid of them?”

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  • disqus_YuwjDSsDp0

    The thought of someone using cannabis and not being able to own a gun is beyond absurd. These decisions are being made by people who don’t know squat about cannabis. Perhaps if they would educate themselves, we could have some wiser decision makers instead of decisions made from ideals out of the Dark Ages.

  • Observer

    If any person, anywhere, who uses marijuana for any reason is forced to give upon their guns or is prevented from owning one (or more), then every person who buys alcohol for any reason, and any person who has ever been treated for drug addiction of any type, also need to relinquish their arms and be prevented from owning them. I’m guessing at the statistic here for argument’s sake, but alcohol & hard drugs are responsible for 99% of all violent crime; the other 1% is due to mental aberration due to physical malformation of brain parts or neural pathways that cause psychopathic issues. See this link for more info (although many other neurological ailments are myriad within that 1%): https://www.livescience.com/39904-why-psychopaths-lack-empathy.html. I’ve never heard of a violent act perpetrated by a marijuana user, although there have, perhaps, been mischievous ones. It’s just common sense that children & teens should not be using any drug (including marijuana) or alcohol while their brains are maturing. But to label marijuana users as more irresponsible than alcohol or hard drug users defies the logic of statistical analysis of crime causation. The ‘old school’ is still relying on the sycophantic proclamations of Harry Anslinger (look him up in Wikipedia), who needed to create an enemy in order to keep his guv’mint job justified: It causes insanity (Reefer Madness) and those black people using mary jane & getting lazy & violent (huh? Both? Yes!) were more prone to insanity because they are just simply inferior to Whites. And they were getting white girls pregnant. But here’s the real reason why he lasted 32 years in his job: he had every white man in America believing: ‘Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.’ White America just cannot have that, dontchaknow? And thus the War on Drugs began in earnest in America.

    So giving guns to alcohol & hard drug users is just peachy-keen fine, but it’s the veritable end of the world if you give a gun to someone who uses marijuana. And then who will usually just go to sleep or couch-potato out. And because scientific research on MJ has been taboo here for decades, knowledge about it is still practically nonexistent in this country, which also won’t accept research from countries like Isreal which have been doing it for many years. My grandfather had a home medical book dating from around 1890 in which cannabis sativa was used as a tea or tincture for treatment of anxiety, the ‘vapors’ due to over-excitation, and dysmenorrhea, among other ‘ailments.’ I wish superstorm Sandy didn’t destroy it because I’d have loved to scan those pages for everyone’s edification. God put that plant on this planet for a reason, if you believe in God. If not, it’s always been part of nature’s pharmacopeia. Why does every government feel it has to protect its citizens from themselves? If this were truly a constitutional republic, the conservative thought process would be to keep federal government small & out of everybody’s business. The ‘conservatives’ today who complain about those socialist commie leftist hippies wanting to stone themselves & everyone else around them into oblivion and, therefore, shouldn’t have guns, need to re-think their positions or stop calling themselves conservatives because their behaviors appear to be quite the opposite of their definition and rather much in line with the ‘nanny’ state they claim the left admires so much.

  • Dawnyb

    Just another way for the CHICKEN DICKS to administer population control when they themselves have proven time and time again that they r crooked and dirty and commit crimes daily right in our faces! Try to take our guns and c what happens!

  • Come and Take ’em

    “Government” doesn’t want people to have guns when the cannabis wakes them up to the fact that the government shouldn’t exist in the first place.