The Justice Department is doubling down on its claim that medical marijuana patients are uniquely dangerous and, therefore, unfit to possess firearms—and it’s now comparing cannabis consumers to domestic abusers with a “propensity” toward violence.
In a new court filing, DOJ responded to a lawsuit from Florida’s agriculture commissioner, who is alleging that federal policy barring medical cannabis patients from the right to own firearms is unconstitutional. The department disputed a series of claims made by the plaintiffs and is requesting that the court dismiss the case or issue a summary judgement.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried first filed the suit in April, alongside patients who were denied firearms because they use medical marijuana in compliance with Florida law. The challenge was later revised to account for a recent Supreme Court ruling in New York that created new standards for state gun restrictions.
DOJ’s initial request for the lawsuit to be dismissed took some by surprise, as the department cited historical case law to support the cannabis ban that drew parallels between medical cannabis patients and people who are mentally ill, panhandlers, Catholics and other groups that were previously deprived of the right to possess firearms.
The department seemed to partially back off its prior assertions that cannabis makes people more inclined toward violent crime in general, but it did say that those who consume marijuana are intrinsically too dangerous to own guns because they’re breaking federal law, even if it’s a misdemeanor offense.
“Marijuana users also engage in criminal activity that renders firearms possession dangerous, albeit for different reasons (i.e., the propensity for violence for domestic violence misdemeanants, and the impairing effects of marijuana for marijuana users),” the filing says.
DOJ is essentially drawing a connection between non-violent cannabis offenses and domestic abusers to make a legal point about being justified in disarming people who commit misdemeanors. But the choice to make that specific comparison has raised eyebrows.
For what it’s worth, there are several studies that have identified an association between cannabis legalization and decreased incidents of domestic violence. Meanwhile, studies have found consistent links between the federally legal drug alcohol and domestic violence.
Fried and others, in an earlier filing in the case, took issue with the department’s insistence that medical marijuana patients are inherently dangerous, while still maintaining that people who drink alcohol have a lawful Second Amendment right because drinking is federally legal for adults. In a brief earlier this month, the plaintiffs requested a hearing for the case before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
The Justice Department isn’t fully backing down from its previous assertions about the dangerousness of marijuana consumers despite the pushback—though its latest filing doesn’t try to link cannabis to violent crime quite as aggressively. In fact, it tries to downplay that association at one point.
“Defendants showed that marijuana’s impairing effects make it dangerous for marijuana users to possess firearms,” the filing says. “Yet Plaintiffs argue that marijuana users can ‘safely use a firearm…when not using or under the influence of marijuana.'”
DOJ said that argument is flawed because “a marijuana user who possesses a firearm will have access to that firearm when she uses marijuana. And because marijuana impairs judgment, the danger exists that she will fail to exercise sound judgment and use the firearm while impaired.”
In other words, the department is suggesting that a patient might smoke cannabis to treat their pain and then lose their sense of judgement, posing a unique danger to themselves or others.
“Finally, Plaintiffs argue that marijuana, or at least medical marijuana, does not induce violent crime,” the Justice Department said. “But for purposes of this motion, Defendants are not relying on the association between drug use and violent crime.” Instead, it is arguing that “apart from any propensity of unlawful drug users to commit violence,” cannabis has impairing effects that cause “irrational and unpredictable behavior.”
DOJ further repeated points it has made in past filings, arguing that Fried and another plaintiff lack standing in the case, that the historical analogues it cited to justify the marijuana ban are relevant and that the policy does not constitute any violation of a congressional rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical cannabis programs.
“No factual development concerning the individual Plaintiffs is necessary,” DOJ said. “Plaintiffs claim that these laws cannot be constitutionally applied to any medical marijuana users. Their claims are not based on any factual allegations that separate the individual Plaintiffs from medical marijuana users in general.”
DOJ’s original motion for dismissal read as “insulting,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told Marijuana Moment last month. “I think that they missed the ball here—and it’s very disconcerting that this is the direction that they took.”
Biden’s Justice Department relied on arguments “as ‘contradictory and unstable’ as their overall marijuana policy,” the plaintiff’s last filing says, citing 2021 remarks about the state-federal cannabis conflict from conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
That filing also cited several quotes from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who said during his confirmation proceedings that DOJ shouldn’t waste resources going after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws and that marijuana is a “non-violent crime with respect to usage that does not require us to incarcerate people.”
Taken altogether, the attorneys for the plaintiffs said that it would be reasonable for the court to schedule a one-hour hearing for oral arguments to sort out these issues.
For the time being, the current federal policy persists, making it so people are denied gun purchases if they’re honest about their cannabis use while filling out a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) background check form—regardless of state law.
As Fried previously told Marijuana Moment, the lawsuit at hand is not about expanding gun rights, per se. It’s a matter of constitutionality that she and other key allies in the gun reform movement feel would bolster public safety if the case ultimately goes in their favor.
Supporters of the lawsuit argue that the ATF requirement effectively creates an incentive for cannabis consumers to either lie on the form, buy a gun on the illicit market or simply forgo a constitutional right.
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.
There have been previous efforts in Congress to specifically protect medical cannabis patients against losing their right to purchase and possess guns, but those efforts have not been enacted.
This story has been edited to clarify DOJ’s comparison between misdemeanors involving marijuana and domestic abuse.
Read DOJ’s latest response to the lawsuit over medical marijuana patients’ gun rights below: