Marijuana Use Still Disqualifies Gun Ownership Under Federal Law, ATF Says

Marijuana Use Still Disqualifies Gun Ownership Under Federal Law, ATF Says
A handgun in a holster in a file photo. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Americans who smoke marijuana are still prohibited from owning guns under federal law, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said in a cautionary statement.

Shortly after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on May 30 signed a bill legalizing recreational marijuana across the state, the ATF reminded Minnesotans that federal law still prohibits anyone defined as an "unlawful user" of a controlled substance, including cannabis, from possessing firearms or ammunition.

"Until marijuana is legalized federally, firearms owners and possessors should be mindful that it remains federally illegal to mix marijuana with firearms and ammunition," said Jeff Reed, ATF's acting special agent in charge of the St. Paul Field Division.

The agency cited the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which makes it illegal for "unlawful users of or are addicted to narcotics or any other controlled substances" to ship, transport, receive, or possess firearms or ammunition.

This law is further supported by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, placing it in the same category as heroin and LSD. The act doesn't differentiate between medical or recreational marijuana.

"Federal law does not provide any exception allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes," the ATF warned.

In the meantime, Minnesotans who are looking to purchase firearms are required to admit if they are an unlawful user of cannabis on ATF Form 4473 during the transaction.

In 2011, the ATF issued an open letter to Federal Firearms Licensees to provide guidance as states began easing restrictions on cannabis. The guidance clarifies that gun dealers should not transfer a firearm to anyone if there's reasonable cause to believe that the person is a marijuana user, including when the individual has a valid state-issued medical marijuana ID card.

According to the guidance, gun dealers must ask the buyer if they are addicted to or an unlawful user of marijuana before selling firearms, and buyers need to answer "Yes" even if they use marijuana for medicinal purposes. If the buyer lies about their drug use and is later found to be a marijuana user, the gun dealer could be held liable.

Legal Battle Over the Law

In a recent challenge of the federal firearm ban for cannabis users, a federal judge in Oklahoma found the prohibition unconstitutional because there is no historical tradition of suspending their Second Amendment rights.

The case stemmed from May 2022, when Jared Harrison, a Texas man out on bond pending trial for that aggravated assault, was pulled over by Oklahoma police for an alleged traffic violation. The officer searched his car and found some marijuana and a pistol. In August 2022, a federal grand jury indicted Harrison for possessing a firearm with the knowledge he was an unlawful user of marijuana.

Harrison argued, among other things, the charge violated his Second Amendment rights. In February 2023, U.S. District Judge Patrick Wyrick ordered the dismissal of criminal charges against him on the grounds that stripping someone of their right to possess a firearm solely because they use marijuana is not consistent with "the Nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation."

"Under the United States' own theory, history and tradition would limit disarmament to dangerous lunatics," Wyrick wrote in his opinion. "And as explained above, the mere use of marijuana does not indicate that someone is, in fact, dangerous, let alone analogous to a 'dangerous lunatic.'"

The fact the Texas court didn't order Harrison to be jailed while awaiting trial, according to Wyrick, shows that he was not a danger to the public. The judge also noted that marijuana could be bought legally at more than 2,000 storefronts in Oklahoma and that using marijuana is not in and of itself a violent or threatening act.

"The Constitution, after all, permits pre-trial detention, and such detention would be a highly effective means of furthering the government's interest in protecting the public from a gun-toting Harrison. But that didn't happen," wrote Wyrick, a Trump appointee. "And so here we are, with the federal government now arguing that Harrison's mere status as a user of marijuana justifies stripping him of his fundamental right to possess a firearm."

The U.S. Department Of Justice has not commented on the ruling but is expected to appeal the decision.

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