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Bullets or Bongs? Coloradans forced to choose: guns or weed

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This story ran in the Boulder Weekly on July 10, 2014

By Kendall Brunette
CU News Corps

Because of a conflict between state marijuana statutes and federal gun laws, Colorado residents must choose between owning guns and using marijuana. Yet state law enforcement officials are virtually powerless to enforce the intersection where those conflicting laws meet.

Plus, Colorado’s marijuana users aren’t lining up at their local sheriff’s office to turn in their guns.

Federal law prohibits Colorado’s legal marijuana users — medical and recreational — from owning or purchasing guns or ammunition.

According to Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, however, law enforcement has no way of knowing about marijuana use and corresponding gun ownership unless someone self-reports or is arrested for another infraction.

“We initially had several people self-report that they were medical marijuana users, and so we did not issue them a concealed carry weapon permit,” Pelle said. “But, we are not actively investigating if they [permit holders] are marijuana users.”

Pelle said the Sheriff’s Office will continue to exercise its authority and obligation to revoke permits if it has documentation supporting possession of both marijuana and guns, but he has no plans for proactive enforcement of the two laws.

Since the legalization of medical marijuana use in 2001, the Boulder Sheriff’s Office reports no more than a handful of county residents have turned in their concealed carry weapons permits (CCWs).

Recreational marijuana users pose even greater difficulty for law enforcement because there is no documentation for casual users of marijuana.

Bob Ford is the President and owner of Rocky Mountain Arms, Inc., a gun manufacturing and finishing company in Longmont. Ford laughed as he described the likelihood that all marijuana users were complying with federal law and forfeiting their gun rights.

“I’ll bet you, the majority of them didn’t get rid of their guns,” he said, “if you think people are complying with that, I’ve got a beachfront property in Las Vegas.”

So why are marijuana users being denied their gun rights?

Michael Hammond, legislative counsel to Gun Owners of America, said he doesn’t think it is fair that so many Coloradans are being denied their right to own guns. He said GOA warned Colorado about the consequences of instituting universal background check requirements for gun purchases and hopes the state now recognizes what he calls “inefficiencies” in the CBI InstaCheck system.

Unless marijuana users honestly self-report on the CBI background check form, state law enforcement has no way of prohibiting gun sales to users — a glaring loophole in the law.

According to a 2011 open letter from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to all federal firearms licensees, the federal government asserts that, “any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her State has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance, and is prohibited by Federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition.”

Hammond refers to the ATF statute as a, “loose, poorly drafted law.” “It hasn’t triggered the backlash that it probably should, because it’s basically not being enforced,” he said.

ATF has yet to release any formal documentation regarding recreational marijuana use and gun ownership. According to Brad Beyersdorf, the public information officer for ATF’s Denver field division, the same rule applies for both medicinal and recreational marijuana use.  Marijuana is considered an illegal controlled substance under federal law, thereby making gun and ammo purchases and possession illegal for all users.

Public Awareness

Calling them the “happy people,” Ford said the fact that some medical marijuana users had honestly returned their CCW permits of their own free will shows some public awareness about the issue.

“It was more important for those people to still have the medical marijuana card and not be able to carry their concealed weapon anymore,” he said.

It goes to show a difference in public priority — choosing one personal freedom over another.

But Jodi Biekert, who handles the concealed handgun permits for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, doesn’t think that the general public knows much about the conflicting gun and marijuana laws.

Biekert said since the inception of the medical marijuana law in 2001, no more than five people have returned their CCW permits to her office.

“The recreational users don’t come in and say, ‘I’m a recreational user and I’m going to turn in my CCW.’ I’ve never had that happen,” Biekert said. “Sometimes we can loosely find out like in 2012, one of our CCW holders got arrested for something serious and in the ensuing investigation, it was found that he had a medical marijuana license and that he was using at the time of the crime. So, the Sheriff denied him his CCW permit.

Proactive Enforcement

Boulder County officials said they do not have the manpower to actively seek out and arrest people who smoke pot and have guns. Enforcement of federal gun laws against state marijuana laws relies heavily upon officer discretion, according to Biekert.

“This is a very gray area in law enforcement,” Biekert said. “It’s not always black and white.”

Sheriff Pelle said, “I would compare marijuana to alcohol in this case — I know there are casual users of both, but we really don’t care about those people. We care about the people who have a problem and pose risk to themselves or others.”

Other Colorado counties also struggle to enforce the intersection of the two laws. Of more than 30,000 CCW permit holders in El Paso County, only one has forfeited his/her permit in favor of a medical marijuana card, according to Sergeant Joe Roybal, the county’s public information officer.

Judy Searle, from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, mentioned that some county residents had admitted they were willing to give up their medical marijuana card because they’d rather legally carry a concealed firearm.

Hammond said it is a difference between the theoretical and the practical aspects of lawmaking.

Theoretically, the state of Colorado strives to grant its people freedom to use both marijuana and guns responsibly. The state instituted background check requirements and magazine limits on guns in an effort to promote gun safety, while simultaneously making marijuana legal to anyone over the age of 21. But the practical implications of these laws don’t necessarily align with the state’s intentions.

By the Numbers

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2 Responses to “Bullets or Bongs? Coloradans forced to choose: guns or weed”

  1. Marijke Van Doornick on May 24th, 2014 8:41 am

    So glad they chose bongs. The USA is leading the way for the rest of the world.


  2. Howard on April 12th, 2015 6:19 pm

    It is important that more and more people choose peace over violence. This is an encouraging read.


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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
Bullets or Bongs? Coloradans forced to choose: guns or weed