If you use cannabis, even in states where it is legal to purchase and use either medically or recreationally, you are barred by federal law from purchasing firearms.
The federal government is stepping up its efforts to keep guns out of the hands cannabis users, even as legal use of the drug is spreading around the country.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives long has prohibited gun and ammunition sales to unlawful users of cannabis, citing a risk of “irrational or unpredictable behavior.” Now, the federal agency has added a warning to Form 4473 making it clear to anyone applying for a permit to buy a gun that cannabis remains illegal under federal law and using it means you cannot buy a gun, despite laws in a growing number of other states that allow medical and recreational use.
The new language, recently added to forms filled out by gun buyers nationwide, has raised concerns that the government is unfairly denying cannabis users their Second Amendment right to bear arms. And it has renewed calls from medical and recreational cannabis advocates for a change in federal law to catch up with the country’s changing views.
Maine is a state with a deep tradition of gun ownership. More than half of Maine adults – fifty-five percent – surveyed in a poll of voters last October said they owned at least one gun.
However, the federal government classifies the cannabis as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Cannabis users who lie on the form and deny usage, whether for medicinal use or not, could face criminal federal charges. Lying on a federal gun purchase form is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Question 11e on Form 4473 – which asks if the buyer is “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana … or any other controlled substance?” – now has a warning printed below it in bold type that states: “The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.”
While the federal government has so far taken a hands-off approach to states that allow recreational or medicinal use of the drug, the new language on gun purchase forms is intended to send a clear message that the permissive attitude does not extend to gun ownership.
Form 4473 is updated every couple of years. The timing of the new warning on the form is not related to the transfer of power in Washington, D.C., although it comes as cannabis legalization advocates around the country watch to see if the Trump administration will take a more hostile approach to their movement.
The revision was intended to make it clear to individuals who are completing Form 4473 that federal law does not recognize the state issuance of medical cards, said Christopher Arone, a special agent and public information officer for the ATF Boston Field Division. The warning also applies to non-medicinal use by adults in states like Maine.
Federal law prohibits gun purchases by an “unlawful user and/or an addict of any controlled substance,” a provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The ATF clarified in a 2011 memo to gun dealers that the law applies to cannabis users regardless of whether the state in which they live has passed legislation allowing cannabis use for medicinal purposes. The ATF had told gun sellers they can assume a person with a medical card uses the drug, and therefore is not qualified to purchase a gun.
The ATF’s position was recently upheld in federal court.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last August that the ban on sales of guns to medical cannabis card holders does not violate the Second Amendment. The court ruled that Congress reasonably concluded that cannabis “raises the risk of irrational or unpredictable behavior with which gun use should not be associated.” The court also concluded that it’s reasonable for regulators to assume medical cannabis card holders also use cannabis.
While the prohibition is difficult to enforce and there is no drug-testing required when purchasing a gun, a gun owner could be charged with falsifying the form if the ATF later learns that he or she is a medicinal or recreational user.
It’s not an ambiguous position, and the court system has upheld the validity of the federal position. Unless the federal government passes a law that removed cannabis from classification as a Schedule I drug, you are still considered an “unlawful user” under federal law, regardless of what the state laws may say, and you could face a federal prosecution for lying on your Form 4473 if you are caught.
With 29 States and Washington D.C. having legalized cannabis, do you think these draconian laws will ever change? Comment below!