Will Hawaiians Who Use Medical Pot Lose Their Right to Own a Gun?


Hawaii is one of 29 states that allow medical use of marijuana. It's also the only state that requires registration of all firearms. If you are familiar with the criteria that bar people from owning guns under federal law, you can probably surmise what the conjunction of these two facts means for patients who use cannabis as a medicine, which Hawaii allows them to do only if they register with the state.

"Your medical marijuana use disqualifies you from ownership of firearms and ammunition," Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said in a November 13 letter received by about 30 people on Oahu. "If you currently own or have any firearms, you have 30 days upon receipt of this letter to voluntarily surrender your firearms, permit, and ammunition to the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) or otherwise transfer ownership."

Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000. It's not clear what prompted the letters now, but the opening of the state's first dispensary last August may have had something to do with it. Ballard cited a state law that says "no person who is…prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition under federal law shall own, possess, or control any firearm or ammunition." Federal law forbids possession of firearms by any "unlawful user" of a controlled substance and, unlike Hawaii law, does not recognize any legitimate reason for consuming cannabis.

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Hawaii, upheld a ban on gun sales to people with medical marijuana cards, even if they do not consume cannabis. The appeals court reasoned that possessing such a card is a good if imperfect indicator of illegal drug use, which it said is associated with violence, "impaired mental states," and "negative interactions with law enforcement officers." The court concluded that there is a "reasonable fit" between the ban and a substantial government objective, which means it passes "intermediate scrutiny" and is therefore consistent with the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Disarming medical marijuana patients nevertheless proved controversial in Hawaii, where local criticism led Ballard to backpedal in December. Although the HPD will continue to reject gun permit applications from patients on the state's registry, she said, for the time being it will not try to take firearms away from those who already own them.

"This is a new area of concern for cities across the country, and we in Honolulu want to develop a policy that's legally sound and serves our community," the police chief said in a press release. "Formulating the policy will take time, but we want to do it right."