In nationwide surveys, Alaska has consistently had some of the highest reported rates of gun ownership and adult cannabis use. So the two topics were bound to intersect here. Given the controversy surrounding guns in our country, and cannabis for that matter, I'm going to take a few steady breaths and pause a little before getting into it. I hope everyone does the same. All around this topic, the air has the clean blue flavor of a fresh lightning strike.
This question from Dave should open up a new and contentious path of inquiry through an realm that's already full of complications, variations, and unforeseeable circumstances. Gratefully, his question is very narrow and will allow us to plink first. But this is a big topic and this discussion will necessarily be incomplete. Numerous other questions will come up here, so please feel free to send them in. Instructions are at the bottom of this column.
Dave prefaces the discussion with Alaska Statute 11.61.210, the statute describing "Misconduct Involving Weapons in the Fourth Degree," an offense you could be charged with if you possess a firearm while you're intoxicated by alcohol or a controlled substance. Then he gets right to it:
If having one ounce of cannabis is legal to have either "on the person, or in the interior of a vehicle in which that person is present." And I have a right to bear arms in an open carry state.... Can I have a bag of weed sitting next to the pistol in the glove box of my truck here in Alaska?
Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions
Before we go further, let's get one thing clear. Alaska state law and federal law are in stark contrast here. The federal government has taken a very firm stance when it comes to guns and pot, which it still lists with prejudice among the tier of the most dangerous, least medically useful controlled substances. And violence and firearms are explicitly mentioned in the so-called "Cole Memo" spelling out federal enforcement priorities when it comes to state-legal cannabis.
Bottom line is that legal cannabis at the state level and Second Amendment rights have not been clearly reconciled in light of federal policy or criminal laws against cannabis. And federal firearms transaction paperwork (Form 4473) still asks people if they are "an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or other controlled substances," based on federal law, not state.
As with many of these situations where laws conflict and there's a lot of room for individual circumstance to mess up a general rule of thumb, the safest option is to just leave no question. But that's not always realistic. It's asking a lot, but let's set aside federal law and a lot of context for the moment. Let's just sit in Dave's truck with him and contemplate Alaska law, that pistol and that bag.
First, let's look at possession by itself.
Megan Peters, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Public Safety said that she couldn't answer from a federal or local perspective, but wrote, "From a state law perspective, if the person is able to legally possess the marijuana and they may legally possess a firearm, it should be okay."
Those two ifs are carrying a fair amount of baggage. So let's set aside questions about who can legally possess a pistol or how to safely and legally transport a firearm. This is "Highly Informed," after all, not "Tightly Grouped."
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is how central firearms are to many people's way of life here, Alaska has some of the least restrictive state gun laws in the country, but it also has a large number of conscientious gun owners. So if Dave's got a glove box weapon, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he can own one, that he trains and maintains, and that he's familiar with the rules involving carrying a concealed firearm -- including the law requiring him to notify law enforcement immediately upon contact that he is carrying one on his person.
When it comes to cannabis possession, however, Peters' distinction between state and local law is important.
Legally possessing cannabis in the passenger compartment of a vehicle (including the glove box) varies from locality to locality. As we recently discussed, Anchorage, for example, requires a sealed, tamper-evident container, or keeping an unsealed container far away from the driver or in a trunk. But state law doesn't yet specify laws for marijuana open containers.
So, sure, simply possessing a legally compliant bag of cannabis and a pistol isn't going against state law. But what if Dave's driving causes suspicion of impaired driving? When suspected impairment enters the picture, things change.
Alaska's laws against firearms possession while impaired aren't any different than they've always been. We've explored uncertainties related to cannabis impairment before in a DUI context, but everyone can count on law enforcement to ask the same kinds of questions when it comes to investigating impairment and weapons misconduct. But officers use common sense in these cases, and they know that you have to smoke or otherwise ingest weed to be impaired, not just possess it. Today's herb is high quality, but the world is still waiting for a flower or concentrate that will get someone high just by looking at it.
Law enforcement officials have told me over and over again that each incident they encounter is unique and they treat the evidence at hand before deciding whether to make an arrest or submit a charge. So, if someone's showing signs of driving while impaired, a pistol and a cannabis product in the glove box, sealed or not, might make the situation worse. It might not too, but that's the risk, and it's hard to say generally how things could go. Law enforcement has also repeatedly told me that when it comes to impairment, what substance is causing the impairment is a secondary matter when it comes to figuring out charges. The impairment is the key.
As Peters said above, simply possessing a gun and cannabis together should be OK barring other factors, but she also said, "If someone is planning on consuming any substance that will impair them, it is probably smart to not have a firearm around."
Clarification: Reader and retired Alaska State Trooper Pat Hames identified a potential misunderstanding in the original version of this column. It has been clarified above. He noted that state law requires a person to notify law enforcement that they're carrying a concealed firearm on their person, but not necessarily if it's in an automobile glove box, as in the scenario above. "However," he wrote, "I would recommend that if a police officer stops you in your vehicle, and you have a firearm in your glove box, and you have documents in that glove box that the officer requests, discretion would require that you first inform the officer of the weapon and ask before opening the glove box. Discretion, common sense and self-preservation, not the law, require it."
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