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Medical Marijuana Is The Leading Cause Of Rejected Gun Permits In Hawaii, New Report From AG’s Office Shows



Of the roughly 500 firearm permit applications denied by officials in Hawaii last year, more than 40 percent were rejected because of applicants’ status as medical marijuana patients, according to new data from the state attorney general’s office.

Across Hawaii, state-legal cannabis use was the leading cause of gun permits being denied (40.7 percent), with mental health issues responsible for about a quarter of rejections and domestic violence disqualifying about 7 percent.

That said, a relatively small portion of firearm registrations were rejected by law enforcement last year. Of 23,528 applications processed during 2023, only 519—about 2.2 percent—were denied.

Of the rejected applications, 211 resulted from medical marijuana. Those denials included not only patients currently enrolled in the state program but also former patients. As the AG report notes, “police departments allow former patients to apply for firearms no less than one year after the expiration of their medical marijuana card.”

Under federal law, being an “unlawful user” of a controlled substance, including marijuana, means a person cannot legally buy or possess a gun.

Notably, the report showed that rejection rates varied significantly by region. In Kauai County, for instance, just 0.2 percent of applications were denied in 2023, compared to about 6.9 percent in Hawaii County, which comprises the Big Island.

Of 332 denials in Hawaii County last year, 191—about 57.5 percent—were due primarily to medical marijuana.

Hawaii County Police Chief Benjamin Moszkowicz said he was initially surprised by the disparity.

“I got this report the same day that it was released out to the general public, and I immediately had kind of some of those same questions, like why are we denying so much more than the other counties?” he told Hawai’i Public Radio (HPR). “So in this particular set of circumstances, most of our application denials center around medical marijuana applicants.”

Hawaii County was unique in the state, Moszkowicz explained, because other counties didn’t consider a medical marijuana permit disqualifying if it’s been expired for a year or more. Hawaii County, by contrast, had considered a past permit an automatic disqualifier.

As of Monday, Hawaii County has reportedly stopped automatically denying firearm applications from people whose medical marijuana enrollment lapsed more than a year ago.

Moszkowicz also said that three quarters of applicants who were initially denied over past medical marijuana enrollments were eventually approved “after returning with documentation from a doctor or counselor saying they were no longer adversely affected,” according to HPR.

“I don’t think we were doing anything wrong by denying people’s applications under that section and asking them to, you know, basically redeem that right by providing what the statute suggests. But at the same time, because such a large percentage of those people were able to get that documentation so quickly, actually, we changed our policy,” Moszkowicz told the outlet. “So in the last day or two, we’ve changed our policy and our practice to align with the other counties. And that’s a direct result of this report.”

Overall, gun registrations are significantly up in Hawaii in recent decades.

“Firearm registration activity increased dramatically over the course of the 24 years for which these data have been systematically complied and reported,” the AG’s office said in a press release. “From 2000 through 2023, the number of statewide permit applications processed annually increased by 262.6%, the number of firearms annually registered leapt by 280.5%, and the number of firearms annually imported climbed 263.4%.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear a government appeal of a circuit court ruling that found the federal firearm restriction violates the Second Amendment.

That ruling came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which examined the federal statute known as Section 922(g)(3) that prevents someone who is an “unlawful user” of an illegal drug from buying or possessing firearms. The circuit court found the policy unconstitutional as applied to a man who faced a conviction after admitting to having used cannabis while in possession of a gun.

Some states have passed their own laws either further restricting or attempting to preserve gun rights as they relate to marijuana. Last month, for example, a Pennsylvania lawmaker introduced a bill meant to remove state barriers to medical marijuana patients carrying firearms.

Colorado organizers are also working to qualify a prospective state ballot measure that would remove a barrier around the issuance of concealed handgun permits, specifying that whether someone is an “unlawful user of or addicted to marijuana” should be determined “only as provided in state law and regulations.”

At the federal level, enforcement of the rule against gun purchases or ownership by marijuana users has been inconsistent. Attorneys for President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, for example, who’s been charged by the Department of Justice (DOJ) with illegally owning a firearm while a user of illegal drugs, have argued that millions of marijuana users in legal states already own guns.

The younger Biden’s legal team has alleged that even the prosecutor on the case has acknowledged that “an ordinary citizen would not be prosecuted for this offense,” which they argued “is borne out by DOJ’s policy and statistical evidence.”

While people who use cannabis are barred from owning firearms under the law, a little-notice FBI memo from 2019 that recently surfaced shows that the federal government generally does not consider it a violation of the law for medical cannabis caregivers and growers to have guns.

The statute behind the prohibition has been challenged in a number of federal courts in recent years, with more than one judicial body determining that the restriction is unconstitutional. DOJ has steadfastly defended the ban, however, contending that medical marijuana patients and everyday consumers pose unique dangers to society that justify withholding Second Amendment rights.

Last year, for example, the Justice Department told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that historical precedent “comfortably” supports the restriction. Cannabis consumers with guns pose a unique danger to society, the Biden administration claimed, in part because they’re “unlikely” to store their weapon properly.

The federal government has repeatedly claimed that those analogues provide clear support for limiting gun rights for cannabis users. But several federal courts have separately deemed the marijuana-related ban unconstitutional, leading DOJ to appeal in several ongoing cases.

The Justice Department asserted similar points during oral arguments in a separate but related case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in October. That case focuses on the Second Amendment rights of medical cannabis patients in Florida.

Attorneys in both cases have also touched on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruling from August, Daniels v. United States, that found the ban preventing people who use marijuana from possessing firearms is unconstitutional, even if they consume cannabis for non-medical reasons.

DOJ had already advised the Eleventh Circuit court that it felt the ruling was “incorrectly decided,” and the department’s attorney reiterated that it’s the government’s belief that “there are some reasons to be uncertain about the foundations” of the appeals court decision.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma also ruled in February that the ban prohibiting people who use marijuana from possessing firearms is unconstitutional, with the judge stating that the federal government’s justification for upholding the law is “concerning.”

In U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, a judge ruled in April that banning people who use marijuana from possessing firearms is unconstitutional—and it said the same legal principle also applies to the sale and transfer of guns.

In August, meanwhile, ATF sent a letter to Arkansas officials saying that the state’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.

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.

Attorneys for Hunter Biden, 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.

Republican congressional lawmakers have also filed bills that focus on gun and marijuana policy.

Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, filed legislation last 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) committed to attaching that legislation to a bipartisan marijuana banking bill.

Meanwhile, Mast also cosponsored a separate bill from Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) that would more narrowly allow medical cannabis patients to purchase and possess firearms.

One place where the matter is particularly relevant is Jersey City, New Jersey, where Mayor Steven M. Fulop (D) is suing over a state policy that allows police officers to use marijuana while off duty.

That challenge, however, has sparked pushback from two police officers, who’ve since sued Jersey City over what they say is a politically motivated move by Fulop in service of a future gubernatorial campaign. A police union has also asked the judge in the city’s case to throw out the lawsuit, calling it “pure hogwash.”

Back in Hawaii, following the failure of a Hawaii bill to legalize cannabis for adults earlier this year, Gov. Josh Green (D) said last month that he has “a possible solution” to the issue: vastly expanding the state’s existing medical marijuana system to allow people to register based on any health concern rather than needing to have one of a specific list of conditions.

“This would make it very available—that’s marijuana—for those who choose it in their lives,” the governor said in an interview with Hawaii News Now, “and it would still keep kids safe, which has been everyone’s priority.”

At the same time, Green reiterated his support for full recreational legalization.

“I think for adults who can responsibly use marijuana, it should be legal,” he said.

The governor’s comments came immediately following House lawmakers’ decision to kill a Senate-passed cannabis legalization bill in April. That same month week, the Senate also voted to scuttle a separate measure that would have expanded the state’s existing marijuana decriminalization law.

In April 2023, meanwhile, Hawaii’s legislature approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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