Nearly 50 million Americans use marijuana each year, according to the latest federal survey data, and the actual number may be more like 70 million once underreporting is taken into account. Under federal law, all of those people are forbidden to purchase or possess firearms, even if they live in states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.
A bill recently introduced by Rep. Don Young (R–Alaska) and cosponsored by two other Republicans would restore the Second Amendment rights of cannabis consumers by creating an exception for state-legal marijuana use. "When I was sworn into Congress, I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States," Young says in a press release. "That oath does not mean picking and choosing which Amendments to defend; it requires us as Members of Congress to protect the ENTIRE Bill of Rights." He argues that his bill, the Gun Rights and Marijuana (GRAM) Act, would vindicate both the Second Amendment and the 10th Amendment, which lets states "determine their own cannabis laws, as Alaska did in 2014," when voters approved a legalization initiative.
Federal law prohibits gun possession by any "unlawful user" of a controlled substance, including marijuana. When you buy a firearm from a federally licensed dealer, you have to fill out a form that asks, "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?" The question includes a warning that "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."
Cannabis consumers who own guns are committing a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. They are guilty of another felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, if they lie about their marijuana use while buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer.
The GRAM Act specifies that "the term 'unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance' shall not include a person by reason of unlawful use or addiction to marihuana." It is limited to conduct permitted by state or tribal law, so it does not apply to recreational users in most states or to medical users in the minority of states that do not recognize cannabis as a medicine.
"Gun ownership is a significant part of Alaska's culture and lifestyle," Young says. "When my constituents chose to legalize adult-use marijuana, they were not surrendering their Second Amendment rights. At a time when more individuals have been purchasing firearms for self-defense, sportsmanship, hunting, and countless other reasons, we have experienced a surge in state-level cannabis reforms. While we make progress in some areas, it is vital that we do not roll back progress in others….The federal government has no business unduly restricting responsible citizens from exercising their rights or restricting states from listening to their constituents and reforming marijuana laws. The GRAM Act bridges this gap. Given that it deals with both gun and marijuana rights, there really is something for those on both sides of the aisle to support."
Young, who is 87 and has represented Alaska in the House since 1973, is co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and a National Rifle Association board member. The original cosponsors of the GRAM Act are Rep. Rodney Davis (R–Ill.), whose state legalized recreational use in 2019, and Rep. Brian Mast (R–Fla.), whose state legalized medical use in 2016.
In theory, as Young suggests, the bill should be attractive both to Democrats who support marijuana legalization and to Republicans who support federalism and the Second Amendment. In practice, however, the gun angle may turn off Democrats, while the pot angle may repel Republicans. Since the GRAM Act is a good test of legislators' commitment to defending the Constitution, its prospects do not seem bright.