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Medical Marijuana and the Right to Bear Arms

A new ruling says weed smokers in Western states can’t buy guns because of links between marijuana and violence—but do those links actually exist?

By Madeleine Thomas


A medical marijuana dispensary in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, a ruling in the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that illegal drug users (a group, the feds maintain, that still includes weed smokers) cannot legally purchase a firearm. Banning gun sales among tokers doesn’t violate the Second Amendment, the federal appeals court ruled.

Wednesday’s 3–0 ruling applies to nine Western states in the court’s jurisdiction: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Medical marijuana is legal in California, Hawaii, Montana, and Nevada (and recreationally legal in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington). Federally, however, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I substance. And, according to Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff, who wrote the court’s opinion in the ruling, “it is beyond dispute” that weed users are likely “to experience altered or impaired mental states that affect their judgment and that can lead to irrational or unpredictable behavior.”

The original lawsuit dates back to 2011, after a Nevada woman tried to buy a gun from a licensed dealer and was promptly turned away for being enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana registry. (Medical marijuana was legalized in Nevada in 2000.) Even though the plaintiff claimed that her Second Amendment rights had been violated, and that she had registered as a medical marijuana user only to show her dutiful support for the cause (not because she is a regular pot smoker), the federal appeals court disagreed with her claims.

In fact, legalizing medical marijuana may actually be associated with decreased rates of homicide and assault, one study found.

Just as the Second Amendment allows bans to prevent felons and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms, the constitutional right similarly doesn’t apply to unlawful drug users. Federal law prohibits illegal drug users or addicts from possessing a firearm (and from buyers selling to them as well). And even though medical marijuana cards are prescribed by licensed physicians, Schedule I substances aren’t accepted for medical use by federal law. Medical cards are effectively useless as far as federal regulations go.

Wednesday’s ruling also upholds recommendations from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). In a 2011 “Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees,” the ATF announced that, in states where marijuana is legal, anyone who uses pot in some shape or form, and who also possesses firearms and ammunition, is violating federal law and cannot be sold a weapon. (When purchasing guns and ammo, prospective buyers also have to disclose any use of marijuana, depressants, stimulants, narcotics, or other controlled substances by filling out an ATF Firearms Transaction Record.)

In his opinion, Rakoff alludes to studies suggesting links between marijuana use and violence — though he also points out that rates of violence between illegal drug users and marijuana smokers shouldn’t be conflated:

It may be argued that medical marijuana users are less likely to commit violent crimes, as they often suffer from debilitating illnesses, for which marijuana may be an effective palliative. They also may be less likely than other illegal drug users to interact with law enforcement officers or make purchases through illicit channels. But those hypotheses are not sufficient to overcome Congress’s reasonable conclusion that the use of such drugs raises the risk of irrational or unpredictable behavior with which gun use should not be associated.

The research is mixed as to whether marijuana use truly leads to an increase in violent crime. Some studies show that, even though marijuana may spark drug and property crime, the drug doesn’t necessarily increase rates of violent crime like murder, non-negligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, or aggravated assault. Other research has found that crime rates are more likely to escalate when marijuana is actually illegal; and that the location of dispensaries also doesn’t correlate to an uptick in violent crime.

In a 2014 study of state arrest record data from 1990–2006, researchers from the criminology program at the University of Texas–Dallas found that 11 states with legalized medical marijuana laws did not experience heightened rates of crime. In fact, legalizing medical marijuana may actually be associated with decreased rates of homicide and assault, the study found. Long-term increases in crime could be linked to the role that marijuana laws play in serving as a gateway drug to more addictive substances like cocaine or heroin—substances that require supporting a habit, and sometimes require resorting to violence to do so.

“The raw number of homicides, robberies, and aggravated assaults also appears to be lower for states passing MML [medical marijuana legalization] as compared to other states, especially from 1998–2006,” the authors write. “[T]hese findings run counter to arguments suggesting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes poses a danger to public health in terms of exposure to violent crime and property crimes.”

Linking violent crime with marijuana use, in other words, smacks a bit of old-fashioned Reefer Madness.