Florida Lawsuit Challenges Firearm, Medical Marijuana Laws
Potential Changes Coming in Appeals Court
This October, a high-profile Florida lawsuit will reappear in an appeals court to challenge prohibitions that ban medical marijuana cardholders from purchasing or possessing firearms.
Though the case was promptly dismissed in its first court hearing in November 2022, similar lawsuits challenging the same prohibition have gained traction in appeals courts elsewhere this summer, suggesting that the Florida lawsuit could face a similar reversal of fortunes when it reaches a US Circuit Court of Appeals this fall.
The lawsuit is rooted in a conflict between state and federal laws on marijuana legality, which has complicated firearm possession for those registered in the state’s medical marijuana program. Under federal law, possession of marijuana is illegal, and federal law prohibits individuals who use illegal drugs from buying and possessing firearms.
Although in Florida, which authorized medical marijuana in 2016, hundreds of thousands of registered patients can legally purchase cannabis from authorized dispensaries.
This has left some Floridians protesting the gray area between marijuana and firearm possession in the state, resulting in a complicated and problematic series of legal disputes. In this article, we discuss recent developments, lawsuits, and legislative contradictions that are continuing to fuel this controversy in Florida and other states.
Lawsuit Scheduled for Appeals Court in October
On October 5th, the Florida lawsuit will be heard by a panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawsuit is challenging laws that bar marijuana consumers from buying and possessing firearms, with plaintiffs arguing that the prohibition violates Second Amendment Rights.
The lawsuit was originally filed in April 2022 by former state Agriculture Commissioner and medical marijuana supporter Nikki Fried, as well as two medical marijuana patients, who were banned from purchasing guns after they disclosed their marijuana consumption on forms provided by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. These three plaintiffs were joined by another gun-owner who refrained from registering for the state’s medical marijuana program for fear of prosecution under federal law.
However, when the plaintiffs first took to court in November 2022, US District Judge Allen Winsor promptly dismissed the case under the request of the federal government. Justifying his decision, Winsor reiterated that Florida’s allowance of medical marijuana did not overrule cannabis’ federal status as an illegal substance–especially when considered in relation to firearms: “In 2016, Florida stopped criminalizing the use of medical marijuana. Many people refer to this change as Florida’s ‘legalizing’ medical marijuana, but Florida did no such thing. It couldn’t,” Winsor said, citing the Constitutional Supremacy Clause. “Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, state laws cannot permit what federal law prohibits,” including marijuana, “for medical purposes or otherwise.”
Separate Mississippi Lawsuit, Centered on Same Law, Gains Support
Whether the Florida lawsuit gains further traction in a court of appeals remains to be decided in October. However, a separate lawsuit–centered on the same laws–gained further support in a New Orleans-based court this summer.
This month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, in at least one case, the prohibition did, in fact, violate the Second Amendment Rights of a Mississippi man who was prosecuted and banned from possessing firearms after authorities found marijuana in his car. Though the plaintiff, Patrick Daniels, was not under the influence of marijuana during the traffic stop, he openly admitted to authorities that he was a habitual marijuana user, and was charged accordingly.
Though the marijuana involved in this case was not medical, this case, like the Florida lawsuit, challenges the same federal law, which prohibits anyone who uses illegal drugs from purchasing or carrying firearms.
However, in Daniels’ case, the court ruled that the federal law in question was unjustly applied, pointing to a 2022 Supreme Court ruling that required gun restrictions to be reevaluated according to whether they are consistent with the nation’s “historical tradition” of firearm regulation.
The ruling, issued on August 9th, declared that the federal law prohibiting firearm possession by drug users–the same law under attack in the Florida case–did not meet this historical test: “In short, our history and our tradition may support some limits on an intoxicated person’s right to carry a weapon, but it does not justify disarming a sober citizen based exclusively on his past drug usage,” read the ruling. “Nor do more generalized traditions of disarming dangerous persons support the restriction on nonviolent drug users. As applied to Daniels, then, [the law] violates the Second Amendment.”
In supporting its decision, the appeals court likened Daniels’ marijuana possession to alcohol use, arguing that the “government has failed to identify any relevant tradition of disarming ordinary citizens who consumed alcohol.”