HELENA - A gun group and medical marijuana advocates expressed outrage Tuesday over a new federal policy clarifying that it's illegal for medical marijuana cardholders to buy firearms and ammunition and for dealers to sell the products to them.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, and Kate Cholewa and Chris Lindsey, board members of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, separately blasted the Sept. 21 letter sent by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to federally licensed firearms dealers.
"It is egregious that people may be sentenced to years in a federal prison only because they possessed a firearm while using a state-approved medicine," Marbut said in a statement from the association.
Said Cholewa: "In fact, the policy goes so far as to say even being in possession of a medical cannabis card forfeits a citizen's Second Amendment rights whether or not that person ever followed through and used cannabis for their condition."
Chris Lindsey, a lawyer specializing in medical marijuana cases, wrote: "With a stroke of a pen, the Department of Justice has suspended the Second Amendment for those who use medical cannabis."
State Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who headed an interim legislative panel that studied the issue last year, called the letter "further evidence that federal marijuana law trumps any Montana legislation, initiative or court action attempting to create protected medical use for marijuana.
"The only viable action open to Montana and other states is to change the federal law," Sands said.
The ATF letter reiterated the U.S. Justice Department's position that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. The memo added that "there are no exceptions in federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by state law."
Federal law makes it illegal for someone to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearms or ammunition to a person "knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance," the memo said.
"Therefore, any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance and is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition," it said.
The memo says people who are using medical marijuana should answer "yes" to a question on that issue on the Firearms Transaction Record form that asks: "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?" Gun dealers must refuse to sell firearms or ammunition to those answering "yes."
If a gun dealer has reasonable cause to believe the person is an unlawful user of medical marijuana, the letter says the dealer may not sell guns and bullets to the person, even if he answered "no" to the question.
Chris Bone, who works in the gun department at Capital Sports & Western, said those working in sporting goods stores have no way of checking whether someone wanting to buy guns or ammunition has a medical marijuana card.
He said he's never had a customer answer "yes" to that question.
In his statement, Marbut called it "more than unfortunate when a constitutional right - the right to bear arms that people have reserved to themselves from government interference - is arbitrarily taken away by what many see as an overbearing and over-intrusive federal government.
"This is a matter, however hotly contested, that should be left to the discretion of the Montana Legislature, not a bureau of the executive branch of the federal government."
Marbut asked why the right to bear arms isn't treated the same as the freedoms of the press, religion or speech.
Cholewa said the federal government is rescinding gun rights after the Legislature tried to subject citizens to warrantless searches with the medical marijuana law. The federal government is "unable to fight the truth that hundreds of thousands are finding relief through medical cannabis.
"They have neither facts nor science to support their position so the federal government is using force, threats and the denial of their constitutional rights. They've invested billions in misinformation about cannabis. They don't like having their message undermined by data and experience."