Harrisburg, PA – Pennsylvania gun owners who signed up for the state’s medical marijuana registry may have to surrender the weapons they owned before being prescribed pot, if federal law prevails.
The state has been preparing to launch its first legal marijuana dispensary soon even as lawmakers and law enforcement officials were finding themselves at odds over what to do about current legal gun owners who had signed up for the medical marijuana program.
On Friday, Pennsylvania regulators reversed their decision to make the state registry of medical-marijuana users accessible to law enforcement, making it less likely that medical-marijuana users will be flagged during federal background checks for gun purchases.
However, all gun purchasers must fill out a U.S. Department of Justice firearms transaction record that asks about marijuana usage even before the background check is done.
“It’s game over if you check ‘yes,’ ” Jim Benoit, owner of Cajun Arms in West Chester, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I can thank you for coming by, but I’ll have to tell you I can’t sell you this gun.”
In December, the Inquirer reported that the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) announced it was illegal for those registering to keep firearms that they owned prior to that point.
“It’s unlawful to keep possession of firearms obtained prior to registering,” PSP Spokesman Ryan Tarkowski told the Inquirer. “The Pennsylvania State Police is not in the business of offering legal advice, but it might be a good idea to contact an attorney about how best to dispose of their firearms.”
The state police’s perspective was shared by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
“There are no exceptions in federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by state law,” said ATF spokeswoman Cherie Duvall-Jones.
Duvall-Jones told the Inquirer that any use of marijuana disqualified a citizen from buying or owning a gun.
“They’re going to have to make a choice,” said John T. Adams, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “They can have their guns or their marijuana, but not both.”
Initially, the state had planned to incorporate access to the medical marijuana registry into law enforcement databases, but that drew significant criticism from those who worried it would be used to punish law-abiding gun owners who had weapons before they were prescribed medical marijuana.
WJW-TV said that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf had assured Pennsylvania citizens in December that the state had no plans to take away their guns, even before the regulators changed their minds about the accessibility of the marijuana registry.
But the governor’s opinion doesn’t really make much of a difference when it’s the federal government running gun-purchase background checks, and they have said it’s illegal for medical-marijuana users to purchase weapons.
That federal law has already withstood one Second Amendment challenge. An appeals court in San Francisco rejected it in 2016, and said that Congress had reasonably concluded that marijuana and other drugs raise the risk of unpredictable behavior.
Police in Hawaii tried to enforce this provision of the law in December, sending out letters that demanded medical-marijuana users turn in their weapons.
There was massive pushback, and the order was put on hold two days later.
While no other jurisdiction has yet to send out a demand for legal gun owners to surrender their weapons, Pennsylvania gun owners have said the announcements made by the PSP in December made them uncomfortable.
Not everyone who signed up knew that the feds expected them to surrender their weapons, according to WJW.
“You have people that are advancing up in age that need medical marijuana and might have, say, 50 firearms and just realized they sacrificed all of those,” said Kim Stolfer, head of the Pennsylvania organization Firearms Owners Against Crime.
“Where are they going to turn them in and how are they going to get rid of them?” Stolfer asked.
Becky Dansky, legislative counsel of the national Marijuana Policy Project, told the Inquirer that the gun debate is a “hot button” issue New England states that have recently legalized marijuana.
“The compromise most of those states are reaching is ‘no new guns for patients,’ but they’re not tracking down guns and asking them to be surrendered,” Dansky said.