Marijuana Expungement Laws

A federal judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma has ruled that a longstanding federal law prohibiting marijuana users from possessing firearms is unconstitutional.

The decision marks the first time that a federal court has ruled against the government’s broad interpretation of a 1968 law prohibiting the possession or sale of a firearm to an “unlawful user” of a federally controlled substance. In 2016, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the federal government’s interpretation of the law, opining that the ban “furthers the Government’s interest in preventing gun violence” because marijuana users “are more likely to be involved in violent crimes.”

Last week’s court ruling rejected that argument, finding that “the mere use of marijuana does not indicate that someone is in fact dangerous” or has a “proclivity for violence.”

The judge determined: “[T]he mere use of marijuana carries none of the characteristics that the Nation’s history and tradition of firearms regulation supports. The use of marijuana — which can be bought legally (under state law) at more than 2,000 ordinary store fronts in Oklahoma — is not in and of itself a violent, forceful, or threatening act. It is not a ‘crime of violence.’ Nor does it involve ‘the actual use or threatened use of force.’ … And the use of marijuana does not become a violent, forceful, or threatening act merely because a legislature says that it is. … [Yet] here we are, with the federal government now arguing that [the defendant’s] mere status as a user of marijuana justifies stripping him of his fundamental right to possess a firearm. For all the reasons given above, this is not a constitutionally permissible means of disarming [the defendant.]” 

The Justice Department is expected to appeal the ruling.

A separate legal challenge to the federal government’s interpretation of the 1968 law, initially brought by former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and several medical cannabis patients, remains pending in the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Members of NORML’s Legal Committee are in the process of filing an amicus brief in that case.

The case is United States of America v. James Michael Harrison.

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