A Florida lawsuit challenging the federal prohibition on medical cannabis patients owning guns gets a boost

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Marijuana. By Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, May 2011.
Marijuana. By Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, May 2011.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — With an appeals court slated to hear arguments in October, a Florida lawsuit challenging a federal prohibition on medical-marijuana patients buying and possessing guns might have received support this week.

The lawsuit alleges that the prohibition violates Second Amendment rights. But U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in November granted a request by the federal government to dismiss the case.

In a separate lawsuit, however, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week ruled that the prohibition violated the Second Amendment rights of a Mississippi man who was prosecuted and barred from having guns after authorities found marijuana in his car.

An appeal in the Florida case will be heard Oct. 5 by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Department of Justice made a filing Friday informing the Atlanta-based court of the ruling in the Mississippi case — though it argued the case was “incorrectly decided.”

The Florida lawsuit is rooted in a conflict between federal and state laws. Under federal law, possession of marijuana is illegal; under a 2016 Florida constitutional amendment, hundreds of thousands of patients are able to buy medical marijuana.

Federal laws also bar certain people from buying and possessing guns, including people who use drugs illegally. In dismissing the Florida lawsuit, Winsor cited the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which generally leads to federal laws trumping state laws;

“In 2016, Florida stopped criminalizing the medical use of marijuana. Many people refer to this change as Florida’s ‘legalizing’ medical marijuana, but Florida did no such thing. It couldn’t. ‘Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, state laws cannot permit what federal law prohibits,’ and federal law still prohibits possession of marijuana — for medical purposes or otherwise,” Winsor wrote, partially quoting a legal precedent.

The Mississippi case did not involve medical marijuana: After authorities found marijuana butts in his vehicle during a traffic stop, defendant Patrick Daniels told them he regularly used marijuana. But the Florida and Mississippi cases both center on the same law that prevents people who use drugs illegally from having guns.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required evaluating gun restrictions by whether they are consistent with the nation’s “historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The New Orleans-based appeals court said that, at least in Daniels’ case, the federal law prohibiting gun possession by people who use drugs does not meet the historical test.

“In short, our history and tradition may support some limits on an intoxicated person’s right to carry a weapon, but it does not justify disarming a sober citizen based exclusively on his past drug usage,” the ruling, issued Wednesday, said. “Nor do more generalized traditions of disarming dangerous persons support this restriction on nonviolent drug users. As applied to Daniels, then, (the law) violates the Second Amendment.”

Federal law also, for example, prevents gun possession by certain people with mental illness. But the appeals court likened drug use to alcohol and said the “government has failed to identify any relevant tradition at the Founding (of the country) of disarming ordinary citizens who consumed alcohol.”

In his November decision, Winsor also took into account the Supreme Court ruling in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. But he came to a different conclusion than this week’s ruling.

“At bottom, the historical tradition of keeping guns from those the government fairly views as dangerous — like alcoholics and the mentally ill — is sufficiently analogous to modern laws keeping guns from habitual users of controlled substances,” Winsor wrote.

Former state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a prominent supporter of medical marijuana, and other plaintiffs filed the Florida case in April 2022.

The other plaintiffs included two medical-marijuana patients who were barred from buying guns after disclosing on federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms, and Explosives forms that they use marijuana, according to Winsor’s ruling. Another plaintiff was a gun owner who wanted to participate in the medical-marijuana program but did not because of the possibility of prosecution under federal law.

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