If you’ve recently moved to Colorado — or just to a different county in Colorado — there might come a time when an employee of your local sheriff’s office gives you an ultimatum: Smoke pot or carry a gun.
Of course, that’s only if you’re trying to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Depending on what county you live in, a question on the application asks if you use marijuana. If you say ‘yes’ on certain applications, then no concealed handgun permit for you.
Laurie Thomas, coordinator for the concealed handgun permitting program at the El Paso County sheriff’s office, puts it bluntly.
“They either want to smoke marijuana or have a concealed weapons permit,” she says of those who apply. “Common sense. You have to have one or the other. You can’t do both.”
In Colorado, it’s the county sheriff who decides whether to issue, deny, or revoke concealed handgun permits.
Last year, a Colorado group called Guns for Everyone tried unsuccessfully to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative that would change the application process so lawful users of marijuana could obtain concealed carry permits. Two firearms instructors whose students kept asking about the marijuana issue launched the proposal. They’re currently working on how best to tackle the topic again this year.
“In Colorado the law states that you cannot be an illegal user of any narcotics under state and federal law,” says Issac Chase, a Colorado Springs firearms instructor and a co-founder of Guns for Everyone. “The goal of our campaign was to get rid of that language that said federal law.”
The group wasn’t able to get enough Coloradans to sign their petition in time, though. This year they’re hoping to perhaps find a supportive lawmaker who might be interested in taking up their cause. Gun bills have lately been on the agenda for Republicans in the state Senate.
Chase says he gets plenty of questions from students in his firearms training classes about how Colorado’s laws on marijuana intersect with gun ownership. A common question is whether someone who has a medical marijuana card, commonly known as a ‘red card’, can lawfully own a firearm or obtain a concealed weapons permit here.
In Colorado, buying a gun or getting a concealed carry permit requires a background check. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation uses a system called InstaCheck and runs information through the National Instant Criminal Background Check system, or NICS. The bureau also runs background checks for county sheriff’s offices for those applying for concealed weapons permits.
“CBI InstaCheck does not access medical marijuana information for its background check process as the NICS state point of contact,” CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina told The Colorado Independent.
But then there’s the question about whether marijuana users in Colorado, where pot is legal, are even allowed to own a gun. The feds say they aren’t.
When buying a gun, purchasers have to fill out a form from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, which asks, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana…or any other controlled substance?”
That’s federal paperwork, and marijuana is illegal under federal law. But it’s legal in Colorado, so some pot-smoking Coloradans who buy guns here might be doing so under the interpretation that they’re not “unlawful” users.
The feds don’t see it that way.
“Under federal law marijuana is still a controlled substance, meaning that people who are marijuana users are not able to lawfully possess a firearm regardless of the state laws,” says Lisa Meiman, a spokesperson for the ATF’s Denver field division. She says in 2011 the ATF sent a letter to all licensed gun dealers reminding them that it’s still unlawful to sell firearms to anyone they have a reason to believe does drugs.
“If you are a user or addicted to a controlled substance such as marijuana, even with a medical license, even if it’s legal in the state to use recreationally, you are not permitted to own a firearm,” Meiman says.
Edgar Antillon, a firearms instructor and co-founder of the Guns for Everyone group, says he thinks some marijuana users in Colorado probably answer ‘no’ on the ATF form thinking since pot is legal in Colorado they’re covered.
“The reality is that there are a lot of gun owners already who use marijuana regardless of what the law says,” Antillion contends. There’s not much his group can do about that, he adds, unless someone who is charged with a crime involving reefer and firearms here wants to make a constitutional case out of it.
In the meantime, he wants to make it so just state law applies when it comes to concealed weapons permitting. That way at least marijuana users won’t feel like they have to lie on their application. (Among other questions, applications also ask if you’ve ever been treated for alcoholism.)
In Colorado, concealed handgun permit applications vary by county, and so does the question about marijuana. El Paso County’s question No. 8, for example, asks, “Do you use marijuana for your own medical or recreational purposes?”
In Jefferson County, the application asks, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana, or any depressant, stimulant, or narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?”
Two differently worded questions for sure. Someone in Jefferson County could be a lawful user of marijuana under state law. In El Paso County the application is more direct, with the question aimed at marijuana users.
But lest you think you could weasel out of the El Paso County application by trying to parse the definition of “user”— kind of like: I’m a vegetarian until my next burger— the El Paso County people have a response for that.
El Paso County concealed handgun coordinator Thomas says if a non-marijuana user obtains a permit and then becomes a marijuana user, that person would have to give up their permit.
At least one state where marijuana is legal has dealt with this in the courtroom.
In Oregon, the issue went all the way to that state’s Supreme Court in 2011, which ruled that Oregonians who have medical marijuana licenses could also obtain concealed weapons permits— even if possessing firearms as a marijuana user is illegal under federal law.
Here in Colorado, the issue has confounded some sheriffs.
“It is an interesting thing,” says San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters. “If someone had a medical marijuana permit and is on the registry, and we also gave them a CHP, it would be interesting.”
Masters notes that sheriffs in Colorado have tremendous discretion about what laws they enforce. He said marijuana users handling firearms doesn’t particularly concern him any more than someone who drinks booze or uses any other prescription drugs.
“Probably a better thing would be is just something on the permit itself that says this is not valid if you are under the influence of any drug or alcohol. Period,” he said.
Right now, the whole concealed weapons permitting process in Colorado is currently getting a look in the state legislature.
This week, Republicans in the Senate advanced a bill commonly called ‘Constitutional Carry,’ that would allow lawful gun owners to carry concealed weapons without needing a permit. A Senate committee passed the measure 3-2 Wednesday on a party-line vote.
Republican Sen. Tim Neville of Jefferson County introduced the Constitutional Carry legislation, along with two other firearm-friendly measures this session. Neville is running for higher office as a candidate in the crowded GOP field to try and unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. He’s already gotten some national exposure for his gun bills in the context of that race.
While Republicans control the Senate, which advanced Neville’s bill, Democrats say there’s no chance the permit-scrapping measure will get to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk since they control power in the House of Representatives.
Antillon of Guns for Everyone says he doesn’t think Constitutional Carry will pass this year, though he supports it, but he plans to harness the conversation about the issue so his group can push its mission on guns and marijuana. Whatever they decide to do, they don’t want a repeat of last year’s efforts when they just weren’t prepared for the amount of work it took to try and get a question on the ballot.
“What we don’t want to do again is start it up again and fail as miserably as we did last time,” he says.