On August 31st, 2016, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made a definitive ruling on the relationship between State-level marijuana legalization and the protection of the 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution: the right to bear arms.
Wilson v. Lynch Court Case
The court case Wilson v. Lynch challenged Federal statute 18 USC § 922, among other restrictions, (2, 6) which prohibits users of illegal drugs or any “controlled substances” from owning firearms or ammunition, and also prohibits firearm dealers from selling guns to known drug users. The lawsuit was originally filed by a Nevada resident (Wilson) who was denied the sale of a firearm on the grounds of her possession of Nevada State sanctioned medical marijuana card.
An open letter written by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) in September 2011 maintained that all individuals licensed to sell firearms were liable under Federal law, rather than State law. It explicitly outlined that the possession of a State authorized card like Wilson’s provided “reasonable cause to believe” that the individual was a user of an illegal substance, and holders of such cards should be specifically refused sale of arms or munitions on account of this. Though Wilson was able to prove in court that she was not in fact a personal user of marijuana, possession of a medical card provided legal grounds for refusal to sell her a weapon. In a decisive 3-0 decision, the court determined that, while her card gave her State-sanctioned permission to legally possess and use marijuana, the arms dealer was justified in denying her the sale of firearms based on the drug’s Federal standing as an illegal substance.
What Does This Mean?
The ruling may seem harsh and potentially unfair, especially by advocates of marijuana legalization. Wilson herself acquired the card merely as a gesture to show her personal support of the cause. She, and others like her, obtain permission to possess marijuana through completely legal means, but in doing so they forfeit their right protect themselves? Well, not necessarily.
To hold the ruling without being in violation of the Second Amendment, the court determined that their decision did “not place a severe burden on Wilson’s core right to defend herself with firearms.” The challenged Federal statutes and the ATF’s Open Letter only barred the sale of firearms to Wilson–not her right to possess them. The court offered alternative means of exercising her right to bear arms, suggesting that “Wilson could have amassed legal firearms before acquiring a registry card…[or] could acquire firearms[…]at any time by surrendering her registry card, thereby demonstrating to a firearms dealer that there is no reasonable cause to believe she is an unlawful drug user.”
While it is comforting to know that potential workarounds exist for users or supporters of medical marijuana wishing to purchase means of self defense, it remains frustrating that they still face obstacles of this kind, even in States where the battle of local legalization has already been won. Should individuals with legal access to a medically necessary substance be required to surrender said access in order to exercise their basic rights? The short answer is no. But until the Federal climate surrounding the medical use of marijuana changes, it may be the best compromise we can currently hope for. However, positive change may be on the horizon.
A Step In The Right Direction
In June of 2018, we saw the first of its kind, fully FDA approved, CBD (marijuana) based drug as a treatment for cases of severe epilepsy. (3, 4) This makes it one of our nation’s first Federally recognized uses of marijuana and its active components.
In addition to its effectiveness against seizures and epilepsy, studies have shown that medical marijuana is a strong combatant of anorexia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, pain, insomnia and depression, among other ailments. It has even been shown to have a direct anti-cancer effect in animal trials. (5) While this first FDA approved treatment is only a small first step, it is a step in the right direction towards medical marijuana receiving Federal recognition as a safe and legitimate treatment for illness. With enough of these small steps, we can continue to hope for a day when our desires for safe and effective medicine do not conflict with our fundamental rights as US citizens.