Guns or marijuana? Some patients will have to make the choice

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As Louisiana's medical marijuana program takes shape some patients might have to make a difficult choice: keep their gun ownership rights or participate in the program.

Louisiana is one of 30 states that have approved medical marijuana laws in some form. Although the state's nine dispensaries won't open until later this year, patients who qualify for medical marijuana under Louisiana law may be surprised to learn that federal law restricts their ability to purchase a gun if they use marijuana.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has not budged from their stance published in a 2011 memo that addressed this issue.

The letter notes that the Controlled Substance Act prohibits anyone who is an "unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance from shipping, transporting, receiving, or possessing firearms or ammunition."

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance and under that classification is not considered medicine under federal law.

According to the ATF memo, "any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance and is prohibited by Federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition."

Although the National Rifle Association has not taken a public stance in support of the cannabis industry, former NRA president David Keene wrote in a February op-ed in the Washington Times that the "refusal of the federal government to accede to the judgment of the states on the issue has created problems for tens or even hundreds of thousands of gun owners who are being forced to either trade their Second Amendment rights for a chance to live pain-free or risk prosecution and imprisonment."

In order to purchase a gun, the buyer has to fill out a form that asks if the person is an unlawful user or addicted to marijuana along with any other controlled substance. The question on the ATF form is followed by the warning that the use or possession of marijuana remains illegal regardless of whether or not it has been decriminalized in the state the gun buyer lives in.

Kate Bell, the general counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that works on marijuana policy reform, said this has forced gun buyers with medical marijuana cards to make a difficult choice.

"They are either committing perjury by lying on the form or not buying a gun," she said.

There have been efforts to address this issue at the national level, Bell said.

In June Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill called the STATES act that would allow every state to legalize and regulate cannabis as they see fit. If a state chooses to do nothing, cannabis would remain federally illegal within that state's borders.

Although there is a risk, Bell said that the Department of Justice is not necessarily interested in targeting individual patients in states where cannabis has been legalized.

"That's not how they want to use their resources. State law is going to protect a vast amount of patients," she said. 

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