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Medical Marijuana Cardholder Now Cannot Buy a Gun?

In late August, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling that no one may purchase a firearm or ammunition if that person is the holder of a state-issued medical marijuana card.

The ruling followed an appeal by S. Rowan Wilson, a medical marijuana card holder in Nevada.  In 2011, Ms. Wilson tied to buy a firearm from Custom Firearms and Gunsmithing in Moundhouse, Nevada.  She was told she could not do so.
The Reader’s Digest Version: Under federal law, a person with a “medical marijuana card” is barred from owning, possessing or purchasing a firearm or ammunition.  It seems that the key to the effects of this ruling is whether the gun seller knows the purchaser is a user or addicted to a controlled substance such as marijuana.
Frederick Houser, the store owner, had received the ATF’s “Open Letter to all Federal Firearms Licenses” shortly after it was issued on September 21, 2011.  The letter stated that anyone who “uses or is addicted to marijuana regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medical purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance, is prohibited by Federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition.”  Marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 812.

The letter further instructed the firearm dealer that if the dealer is aware the buyer possesses a medical marijuana card under state law, then the dealer has “reasonable cause” to believe the person is an unlawful user of a controlled substance. “As such, you may not transfer firearms or ammunition to the person.”  Mr. Hauser therefore told Ms. Wilson that he could not sell her a gun, as he was aware that Wilson held a medical marijuana card.

U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals PasadenaU.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Pasadena

Wilson then filed a civil complaint against the U.S. Government alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment, a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and a violation of the First Amendment.  She also sought declaratory relief that the ATF’s Open Letter was unconstitutional, as well as an injunction to stop its enforcement.  The underlying gist of the complaint was that the Open Letter unconstitutionally burdened her right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

The government filed a motion to dismiss Wilson’s complaint for failure to state a claim, which was granted, and Wilson appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  

In ruling on her appeal, the court of appeal noted that Wilson lacked standing, first and foremost, as she did not allege that she was an unlawful drug user or addicted to a controlled substance.  She also did not receive a firearm, so she was not injured as is required to have standing.  However, she had standing insofar as the gun dealer believed she was a drug user.

The district court then addressed Wilson’s attack on the Second Amendment, noting that in United States v. Dugan (9th Cir. 2011) 657 F.3d 998, at 999-1000, the court held that the Second Amendment does not protect the rights of unlawful drug users to bear arms, in the same way that it does not protect the rights of “felons and the mentally ill.” District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) 554 U.S. 570, 592.  Therefore, the law does not protect the rights of gun dealers to sell guns or ammunition to unlawful drug dealers.

The court explained that intermediate scrutiny was the correct level of review to evaluate Wilson’s claim to an unconstitutional burden on her Second Amendment.  This was so because the Open Letter did not directly address the “core value” of it, which is self-defense, and because the letter only affected the manner in which a person might exercise this right.  

The court then pointed out that the Open Letter did not affect Wilson if she had amassed legal firearms before acquiring a medical marijuana card and it did not affect her if she chose to surrender her medical marijuana card.  

The court then noted that the government did have a substantial interest in preventing gun violence and that there was a strong empirical data suggesting “a strong link between drug use and violence.”  Moreover, there is a great deal of studies that show the illegal use of controlled substances “raises the risk of irrational or unpredictable behavior with which gun use should not be associated.”

Thus the Ninth Circuit found that the district court did not err in dismissing the complaint.

The citation for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling discussed above is S. Rowan Wilson v. Loretta E. Lynch (9th Cir., 2016) 835 F.3d 1083.

For more information about the right to own a gun, please click on the following articles:
  1. Federal Lifetime Ban on Owning a Firearm Applies After Misdemeanor Conviction for Domestic Violence under California Law
  2. Restoring the Right to Own a Firearm After Being Convicted in California of a Crime That Triggers a Ten Year Ban Is No Easy Task
  3. Is a Probation Condition That a Person Not Own, Possess or Have a Firearm or Other Weapon Unconstitutional without a Knowledge Requirement?
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