Judge rejects challenge to Florida laws on guns and cannabis

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"Hockey Moms for Medical Marijuana" sign. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News 2012.

By Jim Saunders ©2022 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE— A U.S. district judge has tossed out a lawsuit filed by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and other plaintiffs challenging federal prohibitions on medical-marijuana patients buying and possessing guns.

Judge Allen Winsor on Friday issued a 22-page ruling that granted a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to dismiss the lawsuit, which alleged the prohibitions violate Second Amendment rights.

The dispute has been 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. The lawsuit, filed in April, alleged the federal prohibitions “forbid Floridians from possessing or purchasing a firearm on the sole basis that they are state-law-abiding medical marijuana patients.”

But Winsor, who is based in Tallahassee, cited the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause in saying that marijuana remains illegal, despite the Florida constitutional amendment.

“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 lawsuit cited a federal law, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, that bars Justice Department officials from using federal money to prevent states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws. The amendment has been attached to spending bills, which means it has to be renewed each year.

Winsor rejected arguments that the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment makes medical marijuana use “akin to lawful conduct.”

“Regardless of whether plaintiffs are prosecuted (or whether Congress allocates funds for their prosecution), possession of marijuana remains a federal crime,” Winsor, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, wrote. “The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment at best precludes prosecution now; it does not forever bless plaintiffs’ actions.”

Fried was a medical marijuana lobbyist before getting elected agriculture commissioner in 2018 and has been one of the state’s most prominent supporters of medical cannabis.

Other plaintiffs in the case include 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 is a gun owner who would like to participate in the medical-marijuana program but has not because of the possibility of prosecution under federal law.

In addition to drug users, federal law prevents people such as felons and people with mental illnesses from buying and possessing guns. Winsor also cited historical examples of laws designed to keep guns away from “intoxicated” people.

“Plaintiffs recoil at being compared to the mentally ill, but one does not have to label marijuana users mentally ill to recognize that both categories of people can be dangerous when armed,” Winsor wrote. “Although the prohibition reaches those habitually using marijuana (even if not currently under the influence), habitual drug users are analogous to other groups the government has historically found too dangerous to have guns. 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. This provides another justification for upholding the challenged laws.”

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