Cynthia Willis fires her Walther P22 handgun at the Jackson County Sports Park's gun range after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters must issue a concealed handgun license to law-abiding residents who use medical marijuana. - Mail Tribune file photo

A Supreme Court issue?

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday in his latest bid to block the issuance of a concealed handgun license to a Gold Hill medical marijuana patient.

Winters has asserted that he can't issue the license because it would violate federal law, specifically the Gun Control Act of 1968.

The sheriff's legal argument has been shot down by the Jackson County Circuit Court, the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court. The courts ruled the state statute governing concealed handgun licenses doesn't pre-empt federal law.

"I was hoping that it was over, but apparently it is not," said Cynthia Willis, the medical marijuana patient who now has a concealed handgun license after the sheriff lost in the Court of Appeals. "I'm just so surprised that there would be a further use of tax dollars in this way."

So far, Winters' case has cost the county $13,000 in outside legal fees plus the equivalent of $20,000 in hours spent by the county's internal legal team.

Willis, who uses cannabis for muscle spasms and arthritis pain, admitted to using medical marijuana when she filed her application with the sheriff for a concealed handgun license in 2008.

The Oregon Supreme Court determined that under the rules of Oregon Revised Statute 166.291, Willis, who has a clean criminal record, should receive a concealed handgun license.

Washington County, which lost a similar concealed handgun and medical marijuana case, also has decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Jackson County petition filed with the high court by the county's attorney, Ryan Kirchoff, makes a point of pressing for clarity in resolving conflicting laws.

"As this case demonstrates, the mounting constitutional and political tension between the states and the federal government over medical marijuana has expanded into the intersection of federal and state firearms regulation," the petition states.

State law versus federal law is an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court frequently debates, but the likelihood a case will actually be taken under review is slim.

Of the 10,000 cases sent to the U.S. Supreme Court in a given year, only about 200 are heard.

For instance, officials in San Diego and San Bernardino counties had refused to issue medical marijuana cards, maintaining that California's medical marijuana law would be a violation of federal law, specifically the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.

In 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear to the case.

Kirchoff said there are different legal issues at play in the Winters versus Willis case that could warrant the court's attention.

The Gun Control Act is designed to keep guns out of the hands of people Congress considered potentially dangerous or irresponsible, such as those who use a controlled substance, he said. Since marijuana is a controlled substance, gun ownership would be barred under the Gun Control Act, he said.

The sheriff's petition to the U.S. Supreme Court states the Oregon Supreme Court argued that federal and state laws serve different purposes. The petition criticizes the Oregon court for skirting the issue of the conflict between federal and state laws.

Leland Berger, who represents Willis, said judges in three different court systems have looked at this case and they've all come to the same conclusion.

"How many judges do we need to rule on this?" he said.

Berger said sheriffs, district attorneys and employment lawyers have so far expressed the most opposition to Oregon's medical marijuana law.

"It's unfortunate that their cases are based on prejudice, fear and ignorance," Berger said.

States have a great deal of latitude under the U.S. Constitution to devise their own laws and regulations, he said.

"It's none of the federal government's business how Oregon chooses to regulate its criminal law," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email

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