Duke Center for Firearms Law
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Legal Marijuana & Gun Possession

By on February 19, 2020 Categories: ,

ATF Guidance Documents and Enforcement

In September 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives released an Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL’s), providing regulatory guidance as to the intent of 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3) and its interaction with state laws that legalize marijuana in some way. The guidance document reminds FFL’s that as the Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance “and there are no exceptions in Federal law for . . . . medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by State law,” the use of marijuana qualifies an individual under federal law as an “unlawful user” for purposes of 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3).  Nevertheless, since 1996, at least thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

In January 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a memorandum (the “Sessions Memo”) rescinding all previous guidance regarding prosecutions in medical marijuana states, deferring instead to nebulous “well-established general principles” which included considerations such as “the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution.” This superseded prior DOJ policy (also known as the “Cole Memorandum” from 2013) which focused prosecutions, in relevant part, in “[p]reventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distributions of marijuana” and deferring to state and local law enforcement for activity beyond the stated scope of DOJ priorities. It is unclear how the shift in DOJ directives after the 2018 memorandum has impacted federal prosecutions of gun possession prosecutions under §922(g)(3) in states with medical marijuana and legalized marijuana, but 2017 statistics indicate that the number of prosecutions under §922(g) generally had already begun to increase following a decline in the period from 2013 to 2015 (the timeframe after the Cole memorandum through the end of the sitting administration). Given the growing resistance among some big city prosecutors to charge for mere possession of marijuana without aggravating factors indicating dealing, the federal prosecutors’ directives appear to be going in a different direction than at least some state prosecutors in areas having the highest incident rates.

William P. Barr became Attorney General in 2019, and announced that he supports “the prosecutorial priorities” that were put in place by the Sessions Memo, which included an emphasis on “violent crime, drugs, immigration, and national security.” The DOJ appears to have turned more of its resources to the prosecution of firearms offenses, prosecutions under §922(g) are at an all-time high, and convictions under §922(g) have risen every year since 2015 (see here).

Gun Permits & Licenses for Lawful Marijuana Users 

Four months before the 2011 ATF Open Letter, Oregon’s highest court, sitting en banc, decided Willis v. Winters, which held that the federal prohibition on firearm possession “by persons who, under federal law, are ‘unlawful user[s] of a controlled substance,’” does not preempt the State’s licensing statute. The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act authorizes medical marijuana use and requires registration of such authorized users, and Oregon state statutes have a “shall issue” regime for concealed handgun licenses.  Several sheriffs had denied concealed carry licenses applications and renewals submitted by medical marijuana registrants, despite their full compliance with the State’s statutory standards for licensing, on the premise that 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3) preempted the State’s licensing statute – arguably, issuance of a license under the circumstances would violate §922(t)(3) and §922(a)(6) (which prohibits false statements on background check forms and similar actions).  The Willis court, however, held that under Oregon’s statutory code, the sheriffs are statutorily-bound “to issue CHLs to qualified applicants, without regard to the applicant’s use of medical marijuana.” Because the licensing statute proscribes the concealment of firearms and “is not directly concerned with the possession of firearms,” it does not interfere with the full enforcement of the Federal statute.  The court explained:

[I]t is possible that the sheriffs in this case could themselves enforce section 922(g)(3) of the federal Gun Control Act against medical marijuana users who possess guns in violation of federal law. The federal act makes such possession illegal, the sheriffs generally are authorized to enforce federal as well as state law, and no state law prohibits the sheriffs from taking such enforcement actions. But it appears that the sheriffs also wish to enforce the federal policy of keeping guns out of the hands of marijuana users by using the state licensing mechanism to deny CHLs to medical marijuana users. The problem that the sheriffs have encountered is that Congress has not enacted a law requiring license denial as a means of enforcing the policy that underlies the federal law, and the state has adopted a licensing statute that manifests a policy decision not to use its gun licensing mechanism for that purpose: State law requires sheriffs to issue concealed gun licenses without regard to whether the applicants use medical marijuana.

In other words, the sheriffs cannot deny concealed handgun licenses to medical marijuana registrants, but they are free to arrest those registrants if they do, in fact, possess a handgun.  Federal law does not mandate the use of state gun licensing schemes in enforcing §922(g)(3), nor, the court held, could Congress do so without commandeering “the policy-making and enforcement apparatus of the states.” This decision remains good law in Oregon.

The Willis decision garnered attention from both marijuana advocates and pro-gun advocates, but other cases since then have been trending in the other direction, and the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act continues to give concern to the courts and create confusion for firearm owners who may use medical marijuana in the (majority of) states that have now legalized its use.  For a recent example, in Bradley v. United States, 402 F.Supp.3d 398 (N.D. Ohio, Aug. 14, 2019), a gunowner wanted to register for Ohio’s medical marijuana program and claimed that §922(g)(3) prevented him from doing so, thereby violating his Second Amendment rights, as well as the Equal Protection clause.  Bradley was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but was barred by federal law from participating in Ohio’s medical marijuana program because he was in possession of a firearm. The court rejected his claims, in part because he faced no imminent threat of prosecution (lacked standing) and partly because his Second Amendment claim was implausible.  The court cited numerous cases from other district and circuit courts consistently holding that §922(g)(3) did not violate the Second Amendment, including situations where marijuana consumption would have been legal under state law, yet the courts affirmed “the constitutionality of §922(g)(3) under the Second Amendment” in that context.

The Sixth Circuit reached the same conclusion in United States v. Bellamy, 682 Fed.Appx. 447 (6th Cir. 2017) (unpublished), holding that §922(g)(3) applied even if defendant held a state-issued medical marijuana card.  At the same time, Bellamy did not include a Second Amendment claim, but was decided on statutory and preemption grounds.