Arkansas’s recently enacted law permitting medical cannabis patients to obtain concealed carry gun licenses “creates an unacceptable risk,” and could jeopardize the state’s federally approved alternative firearm licensing policy, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says.
The Arkansas law took effect in August, clarifying that a person’s status as a qualified patient in the state cannot be used “in determining whether an applicant is eligible to be issued a license to carry a concealed handgun.”
The policy change has apparently attracted the critical attention of federal officials at the Justice Department, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette first reported. A letter sent by Marianna Mitchem, chief of ATF’s Firearms and Explosives Industry Division, to the operations director for the Division of Arkansas Crime Information this week said there are “public safety concerns” with the law.
Mitchem advised the state official that Arkansas has been previously notified that a condition of its alternative gun licensing scheme, which allows gun buyers to receive approval by the state without going through a federal background check, is that firearms cannot be purchased by a “controlled substance user.” In the eyes of the federal government, that includes medical cannabis patients.
The letter contained a veiled threat, stating that if the state department did not answer two specific questions, it would warrant a reevaluation of Arkansas’s alternative gun permit policy.
ATF wants the department to answer 1) “How does Arkansas ensure all current [Concealed Handgun Carry License] holders and applicants are not ‘controlled substance users,’ including users of medicinal marijuana?” and 2) How does the state “reconcile” its law preventing discrimination against medical cannabis patients in gun licensing “with the federal prohibition on firearms possession by individuals who are unlawful users of or addicted to any Title 21 controlled substance which includes marijuana?”
Marijuana Moment reached out to ATF for a copy of the letter, but a representative said “ATF does not comment on private letters.” State officials later shared the letter with Marijuana Moment.
Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R), who sponsored the recently enacted medical cannabis gun bill, told the Democrat-Gazette that it “sounds like the ATF is going looking for a problem that’s not there,” adding that he “consulted with multiple lawyers” to ensure the legislation “was drafted to make sure that it would work well within the legal framework from the federal government.”
“So I’m a little shocked to see that I need to go back and review exactly what the letter says,” he said.
The ATF official’s letter comes on the same week that a federal circuit appeals court held an oral hearing in a Florida case challenging the constitutionality of the federal gun ban for marijuana consumers.
Ahead of the hearing in August, DOJ notified the court that it believes a separate court’s ruling in a marijuana and gun rights case, which deemed the federal ban unconstitutional, was “incorrectly decided”
Relatedly, attorneys for President Joe Biden’s son Hunter—who has been indicted on a charge of buying a gun in 2018 at a time when he’s disclosed that he was an active user of crack cocaine—have previously cited the court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the federal ban, arguing that it applies to their client’s case as well.
Despite the recent rulings, ATF has maintained that the marijuana firearms ban is unambiguous and enforceable, including in states where marijuana has been legalized.
Shortly after Minnesota’s governor signed a legalization bill into law in May, the agency issued a reminder emphasizing that people who use cannabis are barred from possessing and purchases guns and ammunition “until” federal prohibition ends.
In 2020, ATF issued an advisory specifically targeting Michigan that requires gun sellers to conduct federal background checks on all unlicensed gun buyers because it said the state’s cannabis laws had enabled “habitual marijuana users” and other disqualified individuals to obtain firearms illegally.
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Meanwhile, even as ATF maintains that it must enforce the ban, the agency recently updated its own cannabis employment policy.
The update make it so applicants who’ve grown, manufactured or sold marijuana in compliance with state laws while serving in a “position of public responsibility” will no longer be automatically disqualified—whereas those who did so in violation of state cannabis policies won’t be considered.
Republican congressional lawmakers have filed two bills so far this session that focus on gun and marijuana policy.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, filed legislation in May to protect the Second Amendment rights of people who use marijuana in legal states, allowing them to purchase and possess firearms that they’re currently prohibited from having under federal law.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has committed to attaching that legislation to a bipartisan marijuana banking bill that advanced out of committee last month and it pending floor action.
Meanwhile, Mast is also cosponsoring a separate bill from Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) this session that would more narrowly allow medical cannabis patients to purchase and possess firearms.
Read the text of the ATF official’s letter on Arkansas’s firearms licensing law for medical cannabis patients below: