The Justice Department says that policy is rational and consistent with the right to keep and bear arms.
The Biden administration yesterday urged a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the ban on gun possession by medical marijuana users, saying that law is consistent with a long tradition of firearm regulation in the United States. Furthermore, the Justice Department says, that prohibition makes perfect sense because marijuana use impairs the ability to handle guns responsibly.
The government’s lawyers were responding to a lawsuit by Nikki Fried, a Democrat who runs the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Fried, whose department oversees concealed carry permits and some parts of Florida’s medical marijuana industry, argues that prohibiting all cannabis consumers from owning guns violates the Second Amendment. She also claims that the policy violates a congressional spending rider, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, that bars the Justice Department from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws.
As the Justice Department notes in its motion to dismiss, courts have “uniformly upheld” the federal law that criminalizes gun possession by “unlawful users” of controlled substances, which is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In the 2016 case Wilson v. Lynch, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that banning gun sales to people who have medical marijuana cards is consistent with the Second Amendment because “empirical data and legislative determinations support a strong link between drug use and violence.”
That decision, Fried argues, suffered from “a thin and stale factual record” and ignored a 2013 study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy that found “marijuana use does not induce violent crime.” She says “the stated factual basis for Wilson and its progeny, at least as it relates to state-law-abiding medical marijuana patients, is obsolete and without scientific support.”
The Justice Department’s brief does not claim that marijuana use makes people violent. Instead, it emphasizes marijuana’s effects on “judgment, cognition, and physical coordination,” which other courts have noted and Florida acknowledges in the consent form it requires for medical marijuana patients. Those effects, the Justice Department argues, make cannabis consumption incompatible with responsible gun ownership.
The same argument, of course, could be applied to many legal drugs. Yet the federal government does not prohibit gun ownership by people who take psychoactive prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines or opioid analgesics. Nor does it prohibit drinkers from owning firearms, although the Justice Department notes state gun laws aimed at “alcoholics” or “intoxicated” individuals. The ban for cannabis consumers, by contrast, applies whether or not they handle guns while impaired.
The Justice Department compares cannabis consumers to “the mentally ill,” quoting a 2019 case in which a federal appeals court averred that “habitual drug abusers, like the mentally ill, are more likely to have difficulty exercising self-control, making it dangerous for them to possess deadly fire-arms.” Yet there is no blanket ban on gun possession by people with psychiatric diagnoses. The federal disqualification applies only to someone who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution at 16 years of age or older.”
That ban is surely overbroad, since it includes people who were never deemed dangerous to others and lasts long after they were subjected to involuntary treatment. But the rule is not nearly as broad as the Justice Department implies. If the federal government can draw distinctions among “the mentally ill,” the vast majority of whom are allowed to own guns, why does it assume that all cannabis consumers are incapable of exercising that right without endangering the public?
Published: August 09, 2022
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News