Marijuana patients who want to pack heat in Pa. should buy guns before registering for the drug

Are you a gun enthusiast who plans to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program?

If you’re planning on buying a new firearm, attorneys suggest you make that purchase before you take the first dose of your legally obtained medicine.

“If you want to register as a patient, get your gun first and then register as a patient,” said Pittsburgh attorney Patrick Nightingale.

That’s because every gun buyer has to answer questions on a federal firearms transaction form. And the federal government doesn’t recognize marijuana as medicine. The pertinent question asks buyers to check a “yes” or “no” box to the following:

  • Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance? Warning: The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.

Lying on the form could expose a buyer to federal charges.

But if a patient hasn’t begun to consume the medicine, they can answer the question honestly, said Philadelphia attorney Andrew Sacks, who is a cochairman for the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Medical Marijuana and Hemp Law Committee.

“Gun buyers have a grace period where they can check ‘no’ in the box and not commit a felony,” said Sacks. “All bets are off when they start to get the medical marijuana. Thank the federal 1968 gun law for that.”

The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulates the firearms industry and gun owners. It was amended in 1993 to restrict sales to “unlawful users” of controlled substances. In the eyes of the federal government, any form of cannabis — medical, recreational, or black market — is an illegal drug. The DEA considers all marijuana to have no accepted medical use and on par with LSD and heroin.

Despite the federal designation, the medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania is ramping up. On Wednesday, the state’s first dispensary opened in Bethlehem. Medicines are expected to be available to card-carrying patients at a handful of storefronts during the second week of February. The majority of the state’s 50 or so dispensaries likely will be operating by mid-March.

“You have two months to get your gun,” Sacks said. “After that, it’s up to the legislature to change the 1968 gun law, or legalize marijuana.”

Nightingale, the Pittsburgh lawyer, is a gun owner and a medical marijuana patient.

“The likelihood of a federal prosecution on a gun charge for a law-abiding citizen is remote at best,” Nightingale said. “But you’re still federally illegal.”

Until last week, the names of about 500 medical marijuana patients had been available to law enforcement agencies. At least five of those patients were prevented from buying guns after their names were run through a state computer system, Sacks said. Pennsylvania was the only jurisdiction to provide names among the 30 states that have legalized some form of cannabis. Regulators removed the data on Jan. 12 after an outcry by privacy, gun, and marijuana advocates.

In a statement, Gov. Wolf said that patients should not have any of their constitutional rights infringed.

“He has called on Washington to decriminalize medication for patients repeatedly,” said April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the Department of Health.

Asked if the department was taking a stand on patients who want to buy guns, Hutcheson said: “We cannot instruct people to break the law or offer legal advice. But Washington needs to protect the rights of patients.”