Lori Duckworth, a medical marijuana cardholder, takes aim with a Walther P22 handgun while salesman Jim Price at the Jackson County Armory gun shop in Central Point watches. The store would not sell her the gun because of a warning issued by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. - Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

A loaded issue

Lori Duckworth had set her sights on a Walther P22 handgun, but barely flinched when the owner of the Jackson County Armory in Central Point declined to sell it to her because she has a medical marijuana card.

"It looks like I cannot transfer it to you," said Harry Ferguson. "Sorry, I'm regulated by the federal government."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms warned federally regulated gun dealers in a Sept. 21 letter against selling guns or ammunition to medical marijuana patients, or to anyone else they believed to be using a controlled substance.

Duckworth, executive director of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, or SONORML, fully expected Ferguson's rejection because she made a point of explaining to him she is a medical marijuana patient and also made him aware of the ATF letter.

"If you knowingly sell firearms or ammunition to a known medical marijuana patient, even in a state where medical marijuana is legal, you are violating the federal law," she said.

The letter from Arthur Herbert, assistant director of enforcement programs and services, came under the heading of "Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees," and said it was being sent out after the agency "received a number of inquiries regarding the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and its applicability to Federal firearms laws."

Ferguson said any of his gun store customers who used marijuana or other controlled substances likely would not admit it when they filled out the paperwork to buy a gun.

"As long as they fill it out truthfully, it's out of our hands," he said.

Ferguson said it was ridiculous to think his store could police all of its customers, and noted there are so many laws on the books that are already difficult to enforce.

"I don't know if you know it, but kids under 21 drink alcohol," he said.

Despite the ATF's warning, Ferguson said, he finds it difficult to believe the federal government, which has its hands filled with other issues, would pay much attention to his store if he failed to comply.

"I guarantee that if I sold her a gun, there would be no penalty for it," he said.

An ATF spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., confirmed that her agency has the authority to revoke a federal firearms license, but will also meet with a store owner to try to resolve the issue.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 says a store owner or individual needs to have only a "reasonable cause to believe" that someone is using a controlled substance to deny the sale of a weapon or ammunition.

The Sept. 21 ATF letter also makes it clear that even private individuals who knowingly transfer a gun to another person who uses a controlled substance would be in violation of the federal law.

The state of Oregon takes a different position about medical marijuana and guns.

Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, said there's no state law prohibiting medical marijuana cardholders from possessing a gun. But he noted the federal government operates under different rules.

"We're not in any position to prevent the federal government from prosecuting federal criminal laws," he said.

The state Department of Justice agreed with a local medical marijuana patient who was seeking a concealed handgun license in a case that went before the Oregon Supreme Court.

"We argued that a medical marijuana card did not prohibit someone from obtaining a concealed firearm license," Green said.

The case involves Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters and Gold Hill resident Cynthia Townslee. Winters argued that the federal Gun Control Act prohibits him from issuing a concealed handgun license to someone using a controlled substance, even one that is allowed under state laws. Winters lost the case in the Oregon Supreme Court, but has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the ATF letter explains there are no exceptions in federal law for medical marijuana use, an earlier letter from Dwight Holton, U.S. attorney for Oregon, indicated that federal agents would not direct enforcement efforts toward people who were following state law in using medical marijuana.

In his June 3 letter to Southern Oregon NORML, Holton wrote, "While the (U.S. Department of Justice) does not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law, we will enforce federal law vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacture and distribution of marijuana."

Holton warned Duckworth's organization, which is next door to the federal courthouse in Medford, that any property engaged in activities deemed in violation of federal crimes could be subject to federal charges and penalties, including property seizure.

After receiving the letter, Duckworth said, her organization stopped giving marijuana samples to patients for free.

She said it appears the federal government is ramping up pressure against medical marijuana, citing a raid Wednesday night by the federal government on a Gold Hill medical marijuana garden.

"We're at a turning point with cannabis prohibition," she said. But she added it will be difficult to end a decades-long government war against marijuana.

"Our government has too much money invested in cannabis prohibition," she said, citing the dollars spent on prisons and police who enforce marijuana laws.

She said while local gun dealers can't sell to medical marijuana patients, that wouldn't stop them from acquiring firearms. She noted much of the firearm trade locally is conducted through private sellers and said other medical marijuana patients could have friends obtain guns for them at a local store. While those transactions would also be illegal in the federal government's eyes, it's unlikely they would lead to prosecutions.

Duckworth said her father, who was a Marine, got her interested in guns at a very early age.

"Some people collect teapots," she said. "I collect guns."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail

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