When Is an "Unlawful User" of Controlled
Substance Prohibited from Having a Gun?

By Trevor Burrus. Aug 25, 2022

Federal law prohibits many people from owning and possessing both firearms and ammunition. This includes convicted felons, illegal aliens, people who’ve been dishonorably discharged from the military, people who’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense, and “unlawful users” of controlled substances. The last one is difficult to define and, taken literally, it could mean anyone who has ever tried any controlled substance even once. An important new petition at the Supreme Court asks the justices to clarify the definition.

In 2013, Keith Carnes was pulled over by police. The officer smelled marijuana, which Mr. Carnes admitted to smoking earlier that day. Mr. Carnes also informed the officer that he possessed a registered handgun, which the officer found in his waistband during a pat-down search. Mr. Carnes was charged with driving under the influence, but those charges were eventually dismissed.

Three years later, Mr. Carnes was in court on new criminal charges. One of the charges alleged that Carnes was an “unlawful user” of a controlled substance—marijuana—and was therefore prohibited from owning or even possessing a firearm under federal law. The charge stemmed from the 2013 stop where Mr. Carnes admitted to smoking marijuana on the same day he was found in possession of his firearm.

The question of what makes someone an “unlawful user” of controlled substances is unclear, but most lower courts have interpreted it to require some degree of regular drug use—meaning one-time use is not enough to sustain a conviction. The Eighth Circuit, however, disagreed, and it affirmed Mr. Carnes’s conviction even though the government only had proof of one-time marijuana use in 2013. .....


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