by Jeff Barnard
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that a retired school bus driver can have her medical marijuana and a concealed handgun, too.
The ruling upheld previous decisions by the Oregon Court of Appeals and circuit court that determined a federal law barring criminals and drug addicts from buying firearms does not excuse sheriffs from issuing concealed weapons permits to people who hold medical marijuana cards and otherwise qualify.
"We hold that the Federal Gun Control Act does not pre-empt the state's concealed handgun licensing statute and, therefore, the sheriffs must issue (or renew) the requested licenses," Chief Justice Paul De Muniz wrote in the ruling issued in Salem.
Cynthia Willis, one of four plaintiffs, welcomed the ruling.
"I feel like a big girl now," Willis said. "I feel like a real human being now, not just a source of revenue to the county."
Leland Berger, the attorney representing Willis and other medical marijuana patients in the state, said the ruling was important in the continuing national debate over making marijuana legal to treat medical conditions.
Berger noted that acceptance of medical marijuana continues to grow, with Delaware last week becoming the 16th state to make it legal.
Willis, 54, has carried a Walther .22-caliber automatic pistol for personal protection since a messy divorce several years ago.
She volunteers at a Medford smoke shop that helps medical marijuana patients find growers, and teaches how to get the most medical benefit from the pound-and-a-half of pot that card carriers are allowed to possess.
She uses marijuana cookies, joints and salves to treat arthritis pain and muscle spasms.
Elmer Dickens, a lawyer representing the sheriffs of Washington and Jackson counties, said the ruling provided needed clarification on whether the defendants should follow federal or state law on what has been a cloudy issue.
Dickens did not anticipate an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, because the ruling focused so tightly on state law.
"Every sheriff knows now what the rules are, and we got what we needed," he said.
The ruling also said Congress has no constitutional authority to require states to use gun licensing statues to enforce a federal law like the prohibition on handguns for marijuana users.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, said the Oregon justices "didn't drink the Kool-Aid" by adopting the view that marijuana should be treated differently than 400,000 other drugs used as medicine.
He noted that during Prohibition, many people could buy alcohol by claiming a medical benefit.
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger had argued in favor of the medical marijuana patients and against the sheriffs of Jackson and Washington counties who withheld handgun permits.
Oregon became one of the first states in the nation to authorize people to use marijuana to treat medical conditions when voters approved an initiative in 1998. The state has also moved marijuana down the list of illegal drugs from the top ranking to No. 2.
Nearly 40,000 Oregonians hold medical marijuana patient cards, with more than 36,000 of them for severe pain, according to Oregon Medical Marijuana Program statistics. Another 22,000 are registered as growers, and 21,000 as caregivers.