Now that medical marijuana is legally available in Maryland, some who want to use the drug to manage health problems face a dilemma: To get the pot, they surrender their right to own a gun.
The question arises because marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is still illegal under federal law. Authorities have long made it clear to gun dealers that they shouldn’t sell to people who use marijuana medically, and federal law prohibits drug users from owning guns.
Former state Del. Mike Smigiel, who sponsored medical marijuana laws and is a staunch advocate of gun rights, said it was wrong for the government to force people to choose between getting medical help and being able to defend themselves.
The Eastern Shore Republican said marijuana and guns should be treated like alcohol and guns — don’t use them at the same time.
“You don’t drink when you’re using firearms,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s any different.”
The Maryland State Police, who oversee gun ownership in the state, ask prospective gun buyers if they have a medical marijuana card. Buyers must allow the state health department to disclose whether they have applied for a card.
Gun advocates say they have seen questions about medical marijuana appear in the application process only in recent months. State police didn’t respond to questions about the policy.
Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that advocates liberalizing marijuana laws, said the organization doesn’t think medical use of the drug should be a barrier to gun ownership.
“In general, we think medical marijuana patients should have the same rights as other law-abiding Americans,” he said.
Maryland began to authorize a medical marijuana program in 2013.The first growers under the current system were licensed last year, and sales began at a small number of dispensaries in December. Marijuana is permitted for a wide range of ailments, but patients must register with the state and get a recommendation from a doctor or other medical professional.
Supplies of the drug are expected to be limited until the spring, but the guns-or-marijuana decision already has started reverberating in firearm enthusiast circles, generating a lengthy discussion on a popular gun-owners’ forum online.
“This is leading to a very dark place,” one user wrote. “Where the government can deny your right because of what prescriptions you are on.”
A leading Second Amendment group in Maryland is trying to spread the word that firearms owners will face a choice.
Mark Pennak, president of the gun-rights group Maryland Shall Issue, recently published a notice on the group’s website laying out the legal issues.
“I just want people to be aware,” Pennak, a former Justice Department lawyer, told The Baltimore Sun. “There’s so many ins and outs to gun laws, so many pitfalls and traps, this is probably one that’s easily overlooked.”
Several Baltimore-area gun store operators said they had not yet had to turn away a customer over medical marijuana usage. But Chad Fox, owner of Fox’s Firearms in Columbia, said the law is clear: Federal gun rules bar users of the drug from owning or purchasing a firearm, and a question about drug use on a form that prospective gun buyers are asked to fill out warns them that medical marijuana is no different.
“Basically, anyone that smokes marijuana has to answer yes to that question,” Fox said. “They do that, I can’t sell them a firearm.”
The Trump Administration announced Thursday it would rescind an Obama-era policy not to prosecute minor marijuana crimes, raising questions about whether Maryland's fledgling medical cannabis industry would be affected.
Federal authorities were largely content under the Obama administration to allow states to experiment with marijuana laws. But last week, the Trump administration rescinded guidance to federal prosecutors to turn a blind eye to most marijuana offenses.
Even before that change, Pennak was wary of the way federal law enforcement viewed the combination of guns and marijuana.
“The prosecutor is not your friend,” he said. “Don’t think he’s going to give you a break because you're a good guy.”
If individual gun owners are not a priority, Pennak said, gun dealers could face trouble — the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives alerted firearms dealers at least as far back as 2011 that they shouldn’t sell guns to medical marijuana users.
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In 2016, a federal appeals court in California ruled in the case of a Nevada woman that possessing a medical marijuana card was grounds to deny a gun sale, even without evidence of any marijuana use. That decision doesn’t automatically apply in Maryland.
In Pennsylvania, where the state is rolling out its own medical marijuana program this year, state police issued a warning recently that cardholders are barred from gun ownership.
“It is unlawful under federal law for you to keep possession of any firearms which you owned or had in your possession prior to obtaining a medical marijuana card,” the state warns. “We recommend that you consult an attorney if you have any questions about your firearms.”
And in Hawaii, police have sent letters to medical marijuana patients who owned guns telling them they had 30 days to surrender their weapons, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
Pennak thinks authorities in Maryland have done too little to alert medical marijuana users about the choice they face.
“This state hasn’t been very active with putting people on notice,” he said. “I think the states really ought to be warning people ... who are about to get their medical marijuana cards that they're about to lose their rights under federal law.”