copyright the Chronicle January 21, 2015
by Tena Starr
A North Troy man suspects that the reason he was not allowed to buy a .38 revolver last year is that he uses marijuana for medical purposes.
He may be right. Although no state law prohibits a medical marijuana user from buying or owning a gun, federal law does.
Steve Merrill said he’s been collecting guns since he was a kid and had his own store in Pennsylvania at one time. He moved to Vermont in 2001 and had no trouble buying guns here either — at least until a year or two ago.
In 2009 he got a certificate saying he could use marijuana to treat a chronic illness and a crippled foot. Mr. Merrill says he’s never been a recreational drug user, he doesn’t even indulge in a beer very often.
But the regimen of pills he was given to treat perpetual pain didn’t set well.
“God help you if you ever get sick and you look at food and want to wretch,” he said. “A lot of people underestimate pain.”
He said he asked his own doctor “how do you know I’m not scamming you?” when he sought the certificate that would permit him to use pot medicinally. “I’m sure you get a few bad apples who buffalo their scrips.”
The marijuana works, Mr. Merrill said. It restores his appetite, and there’s relief from pain — common comments from those who use medicinal pot.
Trouble arrived, however, when he went to Derby and tried to buy a revolver from Mr. O’s and was asked to fill out the form required when buying a gun.
“I checked off that I didn’t use illegal drugs because I figured it was a health matter,” he said. “It’s between me and my doctor.”
And medicinal use of marijuana is legal in Vermont.
The gun seller told him he couldn’t buy the .38, that he’d been denied with no explanation.
“I thought it was weird. I have no felonies, no hunting or fishing violations,” Mr. Merrill said.
He thought it might be because of his politics. He has testified in favor of Vermont’s medical marijuana bill, and he has a weekly cable show that, as he puts it, “makes fun of local politicians and the CIA.”
After talking to a friend, however, he wondered if the certificate allowing him to use pot for pain might be the problem.
“There is no state law that would prohibit a person who is on the registry from purchasing a firearm,” said Vermont’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Francis Aumand on Tuesday. “There is nothing that prohibits that based on state law.”
Federal law is another matter.
In 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) wrote a letter to “all federal firearms licensees.”
It says that its purpose is to provide guidance since a number of states have passed legislation allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
“As you know, federal law…prohibits any person who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substance Act)…from shipping, transporting, receiving or possessing firearms or ammunition,” the letter says. “Marijuana is listed in the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I controlled substance, and there are no exceptions in federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by state law.
“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.”
Medical marijuana users should say yes to question 11 on Form 4473, the letter says.
Form 4473 is the document that must be filled out when a person wants to buy a gun. An untruthful answer to its questions is a crime. Question 11 asks about the person’s criminal history, drug use, citizenship, and more.
Although the letter is now four years old, Boston-based ATF spokesman Christopher Arone said that it’s still in effect.
There have been no changes in policy, he said on Tuesday.
However, he added, people who want to know why they weren’t allowed to buy a gun can, in writing, request an explanation from ATF. The explanation will not be given to the gun seller.
One thing that Mr. Merrill and others wonder is how ATF gets their information.
“I’m not sure how they would know, due to medical privacy,” Mr. Merrill said.
Bob DePino, field coordinator for Gun Owners of Vermont, said he’s long been aware that medical marijuana users are not permitted to buy guns, and he doesn’t approve of that rule. In fact, he doesn’t approve of background checks.
“Medical marijuana is illegal on the federal level,” he said.
Vermonters who are against guns are working at having all federal laws enforced in Vermont, he said. “They’re trying to get all the medical records. If you seek treatment, you are now on that list.”
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]
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