Federal firearms law takes aim at PA medical marijuana users

The choice between having access to medical marijuana or keeping his firearms isn’t one Patrick Nightingale will make.

The Pittsburgh-area criminal defense attorney and executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society is sticking to his guns and state-issued medical marijuana card and wants others to do the same.

“I’m simply going to carry on my day-to-day as I always do,” Nightingale said Wednesday.

However, he will make sure he doesn’t have a firearm or his card on him when he sets foot on federal property.

Nightingale reacted to a recent post on the Pennsylvania State Police website that he said gave the impression card holders would have their firearms seized due to a federal law that prohibits marijuana users from owning a gun.

It’s causing patients to cancel their appointments to get their cards, he said.

“I’ve heard time and time again, ‘I’ll stay on the black market. I’m not surrendering my firearms,’” said Nightingale.

The federal law doesn’t distinguish between illegal or legal use and classifies marijuana as a controlled substance even though Pennsylvania in 2016 approved it for treatment of serious medical conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and will soon make it available in non-leaf form for card-carrying patients.

A facility in White Haven approved by the state has been growing marijuana for processing and sale at dispensaries, including two in the Wilkes-Barre area. Nine Luzerne County doctors also have been approved to certify patients for the state’s medical marijuana program.

Nightingale said State Police are unlikely to mount a concerted effort to confiscate guns, primarily because they’re not going to enforce the federal law. The likelihood that the feds would crack down also is remote because they are very selective in their prosecution of cases, he said.

The more pressing issue is for patients who want to buy a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. They won’t be able to if they truthfully fill out a form that asks if they use marijuana. State Police conduct the background checks and a false statement could lead to a felony charge.

Privacy issues

Another area of concern for the defense attorney was maintaining patient privacy if troopers can access the registry of people approved to use medical marijuana. Nightingale said he was informed the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which oversees the medical marijuana program, denied State Police access to the registry.

A message left at the Department of Health was not returned Wednesday.

State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski referenced the section of Act 16, the law that established the medical marijuana program, stating the department may notify law enforcement of a violation or suspected violation. In addition, the law states the department shall verify to law enforcement whether an identification card is valid.

Tarkowski said State Police can access the JNET database used by law enforcement to verify the validity of a card. “That information is available as needed,” he said, stressing troopers have to have a reason to check a card.

Nightingale presented an acceptable scenario: If a law enforcement officer “catches” a patient with medical marijuana, the patient’s card that contains a bar code is swiped for verification.

“If this is the only way that law enforcement can access the patient registry then I believe patient privacy is adequately protected,” Nightingale said.


By Jerry Lynott


Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.

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