The Oregon Supreme Court ruled this morning that Oregon sheriffs have no grounds to deny concealed handgun licenses to the state's nearly 40,000 medical marijuana cardholders -- solely because they use pot.
The ruling issued in Salem, Ore., upheld previous decisions by the Oregon Court of Appeals and circuit court in finding that a federal law barring criminals and drug addicts from buying firearms does not excuse sheriffs from issuing concealed weapons permits to people who hold medical marijuana cards and otherwise qualify.
Specifically, the high court said Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon and Jackson County Sheriff Michael Winters were wrong to deny concealed handgun permits to four law-abiding medical pot users on the basis that doing so would violate the federal Gun Control Act. The act states that "an unlawful user ... of any controlled substance" can't own a gun. The sheriff's argued that the federal act trumps Oregon's 13-year-old medical marijuana law, which unlike federal law legalizes pot possession for patients with qualifying ailments and a doctor's approval.
"We hold that the Federal Gun Control Act does not pre-empt the state's concealed handgun licensing statute and, therefore, the sheriffs must issue (or renew) the requested licenses," Chief Justice Paul De Muniz wrote in the ruling issued in Salem.
Cynthia Willis, one of four plaintiffs, welcomed the ruling.
"I feel like a big girl now," Willis said. "I feel like a real human being now, not just a source of revenue to the county."
Leland Berger, the attorney representing Willis and other medical marijuana patients in the state, said the ruling was important in the continuing national debate over making marijuana legal to treat medical conditions.
"I am hopeful we will end cannabis prohibition the same way we ended alcohol prohibition, which was by refusing to enforce federal laws within the state," Berger said.
Berger noted that acceptance of medical marijuana continues to grow, with Delaware last week becoming the 16th state to make it legal.
Willis, 54, has carried a Walther .22-caliber automatic pistol for personal protection since a messy divorce several years ago.
She volunteers at a Medford smoke shop that helps medical marijuana patients find growers, and teaches how to get the most medical benefit from the pound-and-a-half of pot that card carriers are allowed to possess. She uses marijuana cookies, joints and salves to treat arthritis pain and muscle spasms.
Winters denied Willis' gun permit in 2008, arguing that granting the permit would violate federal laws prohibiting drug users from legally possessing guns.
Willis so far has won every legal battle against Winters, with the Jackson County Circuit Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals siding with her last year. After losing the Court of Appeals case, Winters granted Willis a concealed weapons permit while he pursed the appeal to the Supreme Court.
Elmer Dickens, a lawyer representing the sheriffs of Washington and Jackson counties, said the ruling provided needed clarification on whether the defendants should follow federal or state law on what has been a cloudy issue.
Dickens did not anticipate an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, because the ruling focused so tightly on state law.
"Every sheriff knows now what the rules are, and we got what we needed," he said.
The ruling also said Congress has no constitutional authority to require states to use gun licensing statues to enforce a federal law like the prohibition on handguns for marijuana users.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, said the Oregon justices "didn't drink the Kool-Aid" by adopting the view that marijuana should be treated differently than 400,000 other drugs used as medicine noting that during Prohibition, many people could buy alcohol by claiming a medical benefit.
The ruling came the same day that the Oregon House was holding a hearing on a bill crafted by retired state troopers in the Legislature that would make it tougher for doctors to issue medical marijuana cards.