Medical marijuana and guns: the choice between medicine and firearms

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Nearly 12,000 people have signed up for Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program. A law, created in 2016, gives people under a physician's care access to medical marijuana if they suffer from 17 qualifying conditions. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), cancer and epilepsy are on the list, among others.

But a new hurdle could make the choices of patients even more difficult. Due to federal law, any illegal drug use disqualifies a person from owning or puchasing a firearm.

"I am a patient. I have my concealed carry permit and I own firearms. So I'm right in the middle of all this," says Pittsburgh-based attorney, Patrick Nightingale. Nighingale uses medical marijuana for PTSD, a condition he developed after his daughter, Kathryn, passed away in 2005 from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

"If my mind goes to January 5, 2005, the day my daughter passed, then it can just send me down into a very, very dark path," he says. "[Medical marijuana] helps keep my mind from racing. When I'm having what I call my PTSD moment, I start pacing and I start having an inability to function."

Nightingale practices private criminal defense. However, he's turned into a cannabis reform activist, working at Cannabis Legal Solutions in Pittsburgh. He says this issue brings up many concerns, one being privacy.

The Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 disqualifies anyone who uses illegal drugs from owning or purchasing a firearm. Marijuana is deemed a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the administration's website, "Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." Marijuana is alongside heroin, ecstasy and methaqualone.

"What does that mean? I don't even understand it. It's so uncompassionate, it's unbelievable," says Republican Pennsylvania Senator Mike Folmer. "[All for] this phony law that we have on cannabis. Alcohol is everywhere."

Folmer sponsored what is now Act 16, Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program. He's urging Congress to amend the Federal Gun Control Act so Pennsylvanians can preserve their Second Amendment rights while treating their illnesses.

"Come on, government. Let's do something important here and start thinking about patients. Let's look at cannabis in it's reality. I'm hoping this will push the envelope in D.C. They have to wake up and smell the coffee on this one."

Folmer says he had never heard of other state's encountering this issue before with their respective medical marijuana programs. He says now that more than half of U.S. states have approved medical marijuana, it's time the federal government does so as well.

For gun shop owners like Joe Staudt with Staudt's Gun Shop, the issue is written in plain black and white on official paperwork. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has the form 4473 for gun sales.

Question 11E states: "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?" Underneath the question, it comes with this warning. "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."

"Everyone has to fill out this form, regardless of where you are in the country and what state you're in," Staudt says. "If they come in an answer 'yes' then everything stops. We can't proceed with a background check."

Staudt says it's important potential gun owners understand the question and the warning so they do not get a felony charge for lying on the form, either knowingly or unknowingly.

"The State Police are not taking away anyone's guns," says Governor Tom Wolf. "The State Police are not taking anyone's guns away. The federal government really needs to do something here to make sure people can do both."

As Nighingale continues to be concerned over privacy, the Department of Health announced that State Police won't have access to the patient database. The database holds health information of every medical marijuana patient in Pennsylvania.

CBS 21 reporter Sara Small asked how will this gun issue be enforced? An agent from the ATF sent CBS 21 the following response: "ATF's primary mission is reducing violent crime. ATF is not in a position to speculate on future enforcement actions. Each case is treated independently and evaluted on its own merits."

CBS 21 reached out to State Police. They say: "The prohibition on medical cannabis users owning firearms is a federal one. Enforcement decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis."

Nightingale believes no guns will be taken away but he's still telling patients, like himself, to not get lost in the cloud of confusion.

"Do not purchase a new firearms after you have registered and if you do, do not lie on the ATF form 4473. [If you do,] you risk felony prosecution."

Folmer's resolution regarding the protection of gun rights for medical cannabis patients was considered Monday at an off-the-floor Senate State Government Committee meeting. He says he has reached out to congressional leaders and it's his understanding that there will be proposed legislation in the near future to rectify the problem.

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