Firearm background check marijuana
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While marijuana became legal for adults to purchase in Montana on New Year’s Day, a key federal agency has confirmed a fact underreported in coverage of the state’s new marijuana program: It remains illegal under federal law for individuals to simultaneously possess marijuana or marijuana products and firearms, and penalties for violating that law are severe.

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed the policy to Montana Free Press last week, noting that the federal Gun Control Act prohibits a person who possesses a controlled substance from possessing a firearm or ammunition. Cannabis is currently recognized as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance

“The Gun Control Act (GCA) prohibits a person who uses a controlled substance from possessing a firearm or ammunition,” ATF Public Information Officer Crystal McCoy told MTFP.

The question is complicated by a federal form required for purchasing a firearm. It asks the applicant, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?” The form does not specify that even if marijuana is lawful in the applicant’s state of residence, it remains unlawful in the eyes of the bureau.

“Anyone who is currently using marijuana, whether for ‘medicinal’ purposes or otherwise, should answer ‘yes’ [on the form],” McCoy explained via email.

 “The Gun Control Act (GCA) prohibits a person who uses a controlled substance from possessing a firearm or ammunition.”

ATF Public Information Officer Crystal McCoy

McCoy further noted that the Bureau’s position is longstanding. She cited a 2011 open letter penned by Arthur Herbert, the Bureau’s Assistant Director of Enforcement Programs and Services, offering guidance on the subject. “Marijuana, as mentioned above, is listed in the [Controlled Substance Act] as a Schedule I controlled substance … and Federal law does not provide any exception allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, even if authorized by state law,” Herbert wrote at the time.

McCoy additionally cited a 2011 case in which S. Rowan Wilson, a medical marijuana patient in Nevada, claimed in court that the policy violated her constitutional rights. In 2016, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Wilson and in favor of the U.S. Department of Justice and ATF. 

In Montana, enforcement of the policy largely hinges on self-reporting, since the state is prohibited from tracking marijuana customers or putting them on a list. The Montana Department of Revenue and Department of Justice both declined to provide comment for this story. DOJ suggested contacting a federal agency.

Violations of the law are punishable with a fine of up to $10,000 and a jail sentence of up to 10 years.  

As the libertarian Reason Foundation points out, the policy is unlikely to change until either marijuana is descheduled from the list of federally controlled substances or the Gun Control Act is amended to include exceptions for medical marijuana patients or states with legal marijuana markets.

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Max Savage Levenson

Max Savage Levenson is a Missoula-based reporter on the cannabis beat. He is the founder of Montana Cannabis Weekly, a newsletter covering the state industry. His writing on cannabis and pop culture has appeared in outlets including Pitchfork, NPR's All Songs Considered, Leafly, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Reason.