Federal Appellate Court Identifies Additional Consequence of Conflict Between Federal and State Marijuana Laws

The legal status of marijuana at the state level is changing across the country, with more than half of all U.S. states now allowing the possession and use of marijuana to some extent. Federal law, however, still considers marijuana to have no medical use and therefore no acceptable reason for possession, cultivation, or sale. The disparity between federal law and many state laws has produced numerous unusual and unfortunate results. A ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals from last year, while not binding on Texas, ought to be concerning to many Texas drug crime defendants, since the court held that federal law may bar lawful medical marijuana users from purchasing firearms. Wilson v. Lynch, 835 F. 3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2016).

Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. 21 U.S.C. § 812(c)(I)(c)(10). Texas enacted a medical marijuana law in 2015 that allows the use of “low-THC cannabis,” with a prescription, to treat “intractable epilepsy.” See Tex. Occ. Code § 169.001 et seq., Tex. Health & Safety Code § 487.001 et seq. This is one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country, but it is still far less restrictive than federal law. The Wilson case involves Nevada law, which exempts individuals from prosecution for marijuana possession if they have a valid state registration card. See Nev. Rev. Stat. § 453A.010 et seq.

Federal law makes it a crime for certain individuals to possess firearms in a manner that affects interstate commerce, which has often been interpreted as prohibiting the sale of a firearm to someone covered by the statute. This includes “unlawful user[s] of…any controlled substance.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), 21 U.S.C. § 802(6). The law further states that it is a crime for someone to sell a firearm to someone they know or have “reasonable cause to believe” meets this criterion. 18 U.S.C. § 922(d)(3).

The definition of “unlawful user” established by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) describes numerous possible scenarios, including “a current user of a controlled substance in a manner other than as prescribed by a licensed physician,” but it does not mention lawful medical marijuana. 27 C.F.R. § 478.11. In September 2011, the ATF issued a letter entitled “Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees,” which stated that “any person who uses…marijuana…is an unlawful user of…a controlled substance” under federal law, whether or not they have authorization under state law.

The plaintiff in Wilson has a medical marijuana registry card issued by the state of Nevada, but she maintains that she does not use marijuana. She attempted to purchase a firearm from a dealer who knew about her registration. Citing the ATF’s letter, the dealer refused to sell her a firearm. She filed suit against the ATF, the U.S. Attorney General, and others for multiple alleged constitutional violations. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case, finding that the federal statute’s “purpose of preventing gun violence” could lead to “modest collateral burdens” that do not violate fundamental constitutional rights. Wilson, 835 F.3d at 1094-95.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown is a board-certified federal drug crime lawyer who has defended people against criminal charges in West Texas state and federal courts since 1992. To schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced criminal justice advocate, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Considers Definition of “Violent” Felony as Applied to Federal Firearms Law, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on “Straw Buyer” Gun Law, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 27, 2014

Evading Arrest is a “Violent Felony,” According to Court, for Purposes of Federal Firearms Statute, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 12, 2013


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