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The federal law governing possession and ownership of firearms is 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). This prohibits possession or ownership by a person who is “…an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of the Controlled Substances Act 21 U.S.C. 802).”

So an unlawful user is;

  • the user of an illegal controlled drug

  • the wrongful user of a legal controlled drug

Under the Controlled Substance Act, all Schedule I drugs are illegal to prescribe and use under federal law.

So, if you use medical marijuana prescribed by a doctor. Are you automatically an unlawful user of a controlled substance and cannot possess, use, buy, sell, gift, or transfer firearms?

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Short Answer

if you use medical marijuana prescribed by a doctor. Are you automatically an unlawful user of a controlled substance and cannot possess, use, buy, sell, gift, or transfer firearms?

Basically yes. If you use medical marijuana prescribed by a doctor on a regular basis you are a prohibited person pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(3), and you are therefore subject to severe federal penalties for possessing, using, buying, selling, giving and transferring firearms (although case law has held that if, for example, you inherit a firearm, you can promptly negotiate its sale to a third party to divest yourself of ownership of it through a third party broker if you do not use the firearm or possess it; the statute is not intended to operate as a property forfeiture law).

Long Answer

Not many cases address this question. One of the leading cases is U.S. v. Bennett (10th Cir. 2003). It held that is someone is a regular user of illegal drugs at the time of the offense then that person is a prohibited person, even if he was not under the influence at the moment of offense. In an analysis that really needs to be quoted at length (some case law citations omitted) to capture exactly what was held:

The sentencing guidelines define a “prohibited person” in relevant part as a person “who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). See U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1, cmt. n. 6. The statute does not define the phrases “unlawful user of ... any controlled substance” or “addicted to any controlled substance.” It does, however, define “addict” as an “individual who habitually uses any narcotic drug so as to endanger the public morals, health, safety, or welfare, or who is so far addicted to the use of narcotic drugs as to have lost the power of self-control with reference to his addiction.” 21 U.S.C. § 802(1). Mr. Bennett believes the district court erred in not defining the language “unlawful user of ... any controlled substance” the same as “addicted to any controlled substance.” He argues he is not an “addict,” as defined under 21 U.S.C. § 802(1), because he used methamphetamine and marijuana rather than narcotic drugs. Mr. Bennett's argument presupposes the definition of the word “addict” under 21 U.S.C. § 802(1) is synonymous with the phrase “addicted to any controlled substance” under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). We need not consider whether this presumption is correct because we conclude, whatever the precise meaning of the phrase “addicted to any controlled substance,” its meaning is distinct from the meaning of the phrase “unlawful user of ... any controlled substance.” The words “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” are written in the disjunctive, implying each has a separate meaning. See Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 339, 99 S.Ct. 2326, 60 L.Ed.2d 931 (1979) (“Cannons of construction ordinarily suggest that terms connected by a disjunctive be given separate meanings, unless the context dictates otherwise; here it does not.”). Even Mr. Bennett agrees the statute “breaks down a prohibited person into two groups: a. User, or b. Addicted.” We therefore conclude the district court did not err in defining the phrase “unlawful user of ... any controlled substance” differently from the phrase “addicted to any controlled substance.”

In a related argument, Mr. Bennett argues he is not a “prohibited person” because he passed all drug tests while on bond. He claims this evidence demonstrates he was not an “addict” because “he definitely didn't lose the power of self-control.” We have already concluded the phrase “addicted to any controlled substance” is distinct in meaning from the phrase “unlawful user of ... any controlled substance.” The government only argues that Mr. Bennett was an unlawful user of a controlled substance. In any event, although Mr. Bennett did not fail any drug tests while on bond, we conclude the district court properly held him to be a “prohibited person.”

The guidelines do not require a person to be an unlawful user of a controlled substance while on bond in order to qualify as a prohibited person. An individual's status as a prohibited person is measured “at the time the defendant committed the instant offense.” U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B). While a court may use evidence of a defendant's unlawful use of drugs while on bond to infer he was a user at the time he possessed a firearm, see Solomon, 95 F.3d at 35, such evidence is not necessary. The government need only show the defendant was an unlawful user of drugs or addicted to drugs at the time he committed the offense. See U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B); 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). In other words, the government must show a defendant's drug use was contemporaneous with his firearm possession. After reviewing the evidence, discussed in detail below, we are convinced the government met its burden in this case.

As mentioned previously, the government believes Mr. Bennett's extensive drug history qualifies him as an “unlawful user” of a controlled substance. Mr. Bennett does not dispute he used controlled substances. Instead, he argues the sentencing guidelines are unconstitutionally vague because the phrase “unlawful user” in 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), adopted by the guidelines in U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1, cmt. n. 6, “is capable of being understood by reasonably well-informed persons in two or more different ways.”

A criminal provision “must explicitly convey what it outlaws.” A provision that “either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law.' ”. Where, as here, a vagueness challenge does not involve First Amendment freedoms, we examine whether the provision is impermissibly vague “in the light of the facts of the case at hand.” We conclude the sentencing guidelines are not unconstitutionally vague as applied to Mr. Bennett's conduct.

A confidential informant told police Mr. Bennett was distributing methamphetamine. Upon searching Mr. Bennett's residence, the police found “a digital scale with white powder residue, [a] small baggie of suspected marijuana, numerous marijuana pipes and bongs, possible drug ledgers, assorted small containers containing white powder residue, small plastic bindles, and suspected marijuana seeds.” The police also found a small amount of marijuana on Mr. Bennett's person. Mr. Bennett admitted during an interview with police he used, purchased, and sold methamphetamine. Mr. Bennett also admitted to a probation officer he used marijuana and methamphetamine on a daily basis up until his arrest. As a result of the police investigation, Mr. Bennett pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance, i.e., marijuana and methamphetamine.

Based on this evidence, we conclude the district court correctly found Mr. Bennett was a “prohibited person” under the guidelines. His regular and ongoing use of marijuana and methamphetamine during the same time period as his firearm possession qualifies him as a “unlawful user of ... a [ ] controlled substance” and therefore a “prohibited person.” The guidelines are not vague under the facts of this case.

U.S. v. Bennett, 329 F.3d 769, 776–78 (10th Cir. 2003).

A subsequent trial court decision from the District of Utah further elaborated on the standard set forth in Bennett considering rulings from the 5th and 9th Circuits as well:

Mr. Grover refers this court to a decision by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Herrera, which was subsequently vacated by an en banc panel of the court. The decision of the original panel is the only federal decision to expressly reach a definition of “unlawful user.” After analyzing the text, structure, and legislative history of § 922(g)(3), as well as the relevant case law, the court held:

an ‘unlawful user’ is one who uses narcotics so frequently and in such quantities as to lose the power of self control and thereby pose a danger to the public morals, health, safety, or welfare. In other words, an ‘unlawful user’ is someone whose use of narcotics falls just short of addiction, as that term is defined by the Controlled Substances Act.

Although the original Herrera court did not arrive at its conclusion by interpreting the phrase “unlawful user of” to be synonymous with “addicted to” (this was the argument of the dissenting judges on the en banc panel that subsequently vacated the decision of the three-judge panel), the end result is essentially the same. The panel did not define the meaning of use that “falls just short of addiction.” Thus, in asking this court to adopt the definition announced by the original Herrera panel, Mr. Grover is asking this court to equate the definition of “unlawful user,” as used in 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), with the definition of “addict” in 21 U.S.C. § 802(1). For the reasons stated above, this court declines to equate the definition of “unlawful user,” as used in § 922(g)(3), with the definition of “addict” in 21 U.S.C. § 802(1). Furthermore, this court expresses serious doubt that any precedential weight may be accorded to the original panel decision in Herrera. Although the en banc majority did not expressly reverse the original panel's holding, it decided whether the defendant was an “unlawful user” only by asking whether “drug use [occurred] with regularity and over an extended period of time.” The majority never discussed the definition reached by the original panel, which roughly equated the definition of an “unlawful user” with that of an “addict,” requiring the additional element of loss of self-control.

In sum, the phrase “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance,” as used in 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), may be interpreted as either joining separately definable or synonymous terms. The Tenth Circuit in Bennett clearly ruled that the phrase is written disjunctively, meaning that the phrases “unlawful user of” and “addicted to” have separate meanings, and are therefore not synonymous. This conclusion is consistent with the common, everyday meaning of the terms—a person may be a user of controlled substances without being addicted to them, and conversely, a person may be addicted to controlled substances even when no longer a user of them.

Although Bennett did not expressly define the phrase “unlawful user of,” it did explain that the defendant's “regular and ongoing use of marijuana and methamphetamine during the same time period as his firearm possession qualifies him as an ‘unlawful user of ... a[ ] controlled substance’ ....” Consistent with the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Purdy, Bennett impliedly defined three elements for qualification as an unlawful user of a controlled substance: (1) regular use of any controlled substance (or, in the words of Purdy, “[use of] drugs with regularity”); (2) on an ongoing basis (or, in the words of Purdy, “over an extended period of time”23); and (3) during the same time period as (or, in the words of Purdy, “contemporaneously with”) the possession of a firearm. Combining language from both Bennett and Purdy, this court holds that an unlawful user of any controlled substance, for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), is an individual who regularly and unlawfully uses any controlled substance over an extended period of time that is contemporaneous with the possession of a firearm.

U.S. v. Grover, 364 F. Supp. 2d 1298, 1302–03 (D. Utah 2005).

On the other hand, evidence of a single use of marijuana six hours before the arrest with a firearm was not sufficient to show that someone was a controlled substance user, as this could have been "an isolated occurrence." U.S. v. Augustin, 376 F.3d 135 (3rd Cir. 2004).

In general, evidence that one has a medical prescription for marijuana would tend to show that one is a "controlled substance user" and hence a prohibited person with respect to firearms.

The only real out in this case would be the Congressional appropriations bill prohibiting the expenditure of federal funds to prosecute people who are using marijuana in a manner that is legal under state law and related U.S. Attorney statements to that effect. But, it is not at all obvious that these protections extent to prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3).

The case closest to addressing the question of whether someone was prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) for possessing a firearm while regularly using marijuana on a basis that was legal under state law, considering among other things, a Second Amendment challenge, is Wilson v. Lynch, 835 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2016), certiorari denied 137 S.Ct. 1396, 197 L.Ed.2d 555.

The 9th Circuit in Wilson v. Lynch held that the provision of federal Gun Control Act prohibiting sales of firearms to individuals whom sellers had reasonable cause to believe were drug users, and the accompanying regulation and administrative policy effectively criminalizing the possession of a firearm by the holder of a state marijuana registry card (in Nevada) did not violate the Second Amendment. The 9th Circuit reached this conclusion because the government had a substantial interest in preventing gun violence, and because empirical data and other evidence supported strong link between drug use and the risk of irrational or unpredictable behavior, including gun violence. Therefore, the 9th Circuit held that it was reasonable for federal regulators to assume that registry cardholder was more likely to use marijuana that an individual who did not hold such a card.  

In sum, it is safe to assume that someone with a medical marijuana prescription that is legal under state law is still a "prohibited person" pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) and is subject to severe penalties for possessing a firearm.  

  • Found something that may add to your answer. It is an open letter to all FFL's from the ATF; atf.gov/firearms/docs/open-letter/… – Digital fire Nov 21 '17 at 22:57
  • @DigitalFire Good catch. This is an official statement that appears to be in line with the case law cited above. – ohwilleke Nov 22 '17 at 3:57
  • In Florida, The Commissioner of Agriculture (The dept that issues CCW) has plainly stated. You can own firearms/CCW & have MMJ. themarijuanasolution.com/… – Digital fire Mar 15 at 2:43

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