The Honolulu Police Department is sending letters to medical marijuana patients asking them to surrender their guns.
“If you currently own or have firearms, you have 30 days upon receipt of this letter to voluntarily surrender your firearms, permit, and ammunition to the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) or otherwise transfer ownership,” says one letter dated Nov. 13 from new Police Chief Susan Ballard.
While the city has denied gun permits to medical marijuana patients for years, the state revised the permit application this month to specifically ask about medical marijuana licenses, HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in an email.
From 2013 to 2016, 67 patients were denied gun permits, and the HPD has sent letters to 30 patients in the last year.
Bill Richter, president of Lessons in Firearm Education Hawaii, sees the letters as an escalation of the policy.
“Now they have progressed from simply saying, ‘OK you can’t buy a handgun,’ to going, ‘Hey we are going to send these letters and we are going to confiscate all your guns,'” Richter said.
Yu did not respond to Civil Beat requests for an interview with Ballard. Yu also did not respond to questions about whether the letters were sent only to gun permit applicants or to people with existing permits or both.
Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000 but dispensaries selling the drug didn’t open until this year. The state is one of the few that requires potential gun owners to apply for permits.
Federal law prohibits medical marijuana users from owning guns, but enforcement varies across the states.
“Why be so concerned about complying with this part of federal law, when the whole program violates it?” asked Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, an organization that supports legalizing marijuana.
Yu said that the HPD gained access to the state’s database of medical marijuana patients in September 2016.
“Checking the database is now part of the department’s standard background verification for all gun applicants,” Yu wrote.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said the HPD has had access to the list of medical marijuana patients since the program started in 2000, because it was originally administered by the state Department of Public Safety.
Medical marijuana patients who want to own guns have to wait a year after their cards expire before they can successfully apply for a firearm permit, according to a report by the state attorney general.
State Sen. Will Espero said it doesn’t make sense to take guns away from medical marijuana patients.
“They should be going after the real hardcore criminals and bad guys versus patients who need some assistance with their health care needs,” Espero said.
Harvey Gerwig, head of the Hawaii Rifle Association, partially agreed, saying, “A person who is taking medicine shouldn’t be deprived of their Second Amendment rights.”
But Gerwig also said he considers the state’s medical marijuana program “a fraud on many levels.”
“You’ve got people who are using it for drug purposes, not for medicine,” he said. “In those cases I don’t think they should have a firearm.”
“Seems to be a bit extreme that once they start using medical marijuana that somehow they become ineligible to exercise a constitutional right.” — Bill Richter
Gerwig credited the police department for giving people 30 days to give up their guns instead of seizing the weapons immediately. But he said it might still be hard for people to sell their firearms within that time frame, noting handguns take at least two weeks to transfer ownership.
A U.S. court decision last year affirmed federal law denying firearms to medical marijuana patients. A 2011 memo from the U.S. Department of Justice said there’s no exception for states where medical marijuana is legal.
That’s good news to local residents like Willis Moore, a member of the neighborhood board for downtown Honolulu and Chinatown.
“I think any limitation or restriction on firearms is commendable,” said Moore, who teaches political science at Chaminade University.
Richter said HPD’s push to get patients to surrender their guns is unnecessary.
“I don’t see why at this point these particular people are being targeted for what has to be a fairly expensive and resource intensive effort to deny people their Second Amendment rights,” Richter said. “Seems to be a bit extreme that once they start using medical marijuana that somehow they become ineligible to exercise a constitutional right.”