Despite many states legalizing medical marijuana, the fact that it remains illegal under federal law has forced some U.S. military veterans into a difficult choice. Using the drug to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could cost them their their constitutional right to bear arms.
The problem results from a question that gun buyers must answer when going through a federal background check: "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?"
Underneath this question on the federal "Firearms Transaction Record" form, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) warns in bold type:
The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.
Joshua Raines, a 31-year-old veteran in Texas who suffers from PTSD, told the Dallas Morning News that he's put off getting a medical marijuana prescription in order to avoid running afoul of this rule.
"I fought for the right to bear arms. It's literally in our Constitution for me to be able to own a gun…I think it's ridiculous I would have to trade one of my rights," Raines said.
Not that Raines avoids marijuana entirely. The drug has helped reduce his seizures from "30 or 40 per month to two or three," so he still purchases it on the black market.
Raines' situation highlights the predicament many veterans are put in by this backwards federal policy—enforcement of which may vary from state to state and city to city.
In 2017, the chief of police in Honolulu, Hawaii, sent a letter to all residents who owned guns and were registered for medical marijuana cards, telling them to turn in their guns. "Your medical marijuana use disqualifies you from ownership of firearms and ammunition," it said.
The letter cited a state statute that reads: "No person who is a fugitive from justice or is a person prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition under federal law shall own, possess, or control any firearm or ammunition therefor."
However, after much public outcry, Honolulu police backed down—somewhat. While the program put on halt forcing people to turn in their existing guns, city police still refused to grant new firearms permits to people who are registered medical marijuana card holders.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has tried to circumvent the federal law by refusing to share with federal agencies the registry of people who hold medical marijuana cards.
"Pennsylvania regulators … will no longer make a new medical marijuana registry available on the state's computer system for law enforcement, making it less likely someone's participation will be flagged during federal gun-purchase background checks," AP reported in January 2018.
A few federal lawmakers have begun to take note of the problem.
In an interview with Marijuana Moment last December, Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) complained that ATF considers "any user of marijuana" to be "an unlawful user of marijuana." Massie has also tweeted his support for removing the marijuana question from the ATF form altogether.
Massie is not alone in Congress in wanting to fix this law. In April of this year, Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) introduced legislation that would allow medical marijuana patients to be exempted from the question when purchasing a firearm.
Bill H.R. 2071 states that, "an individual shall not be treated as an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance based on the individual using marihuana for a medical purpose in accordance with State law."
While Mooney's legislation would only cover medical marijuana users, not recreational users, it's at least a step in the right direction.