State Supreme Court considers concealed weapons case

The Oregon Supreme Court Thursday debated whether a state statute is at odds with federal law in a case involving a Medford marijuana patient who was denied a concealed weapons permit.

Appearing before nearly 200 law school students, the seven justices convened at Willamette University College of Law in Salem and focused on whether the statute conflicts with the intent of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968.

The patient, Cynthia Townsley Willis, was initially denied the permit by Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, who said her possession of a medical marijuana card indicated she was a drug user. Willis currently has a concealed weapon's license, which Winters approved after the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled against him.

Winters, along with the sheriff in Washington County, appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Attorneys from both sides presented their case Thursday, responding to questions from the justices. A decision on the case is not expected for months.

Oregon Revised Statute 166.291 has a list of requirements for concealed weapons permit applicants, but doesn't specifically exclude someone who uses drugs.

Willis, who wore her concealed weapons permit around her neck, said both she and Winters had hoped the Legislature would clear up the legal ambiguity surrounding the Oregon statute.

"Sheriff Winters and I both wanted this, but the Legislature wouldn't do it, so we're relying on this," she said after the hearing.

Jackson County Sgt. Bob Grantham, who said Winters had other obligations and couldn't attend the hearing, said he felt the proceedings went well.

"It is an important legal issue, and we are lucky to have these people deciding that," he said.

Winters denied Willis' gun permit in 2008, arguing that granting the permit would violate a federal law prohibiting illegal drug users from possessing guns.

Willis prevailed in two previous court battles with Winters, with both the Jackson County Circuit Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals siding with her in 2010.

Willis volunteers with Patient Services, a nonprofit group that helps people obtain medical marijuana cards. She has previously said she takes medical marijuana because of severe back spasms.

Assistant Jackson County Counsel Ryan Kirchoff, presenting Winters' case, told the court the state statute stands as an obstacle to enforcement of the Gun Control Act. He said that if Winters granted the concealed weapons permit to a medical marijuana user he would be in violation of federal law.

"States can regulate to make things more strict, but they can't go in the opposite direction," he said.

He said the authorization to carry a concealed weapon gives the holder a right that is otherwise prevented by federal law.

"The license authorizes conduct," Kirchoff said.

Kirchoff noted that this case is not about challenging the wisdom of the medical marijuana act.

Willis' attorney Leland Berger told the court Willis and others who want concealed handgun licenses are responsible marijuana users.

He said the state statute doesn't prevent the U.S. Attorney General's Office from prosecuting illegal marijuana users under federal laws . However, he said, the federal government also gives a state latitude in passing its own laws regarding concealed weapons. States such as Arizona, for example, don't require concealed weapons permits, he noted.

"It's so bizarre to me to try to understand what the sheriff's concern is here," said Berger.

Justices probed the question of whether the state statute conflicts with federal law.

"On what basis would we go behind what Congress said?" Justice Thomas Balmer said.

Justice Martha Walters said, "It goes against what the federal law says." Berger said the federal law was intended for drug abusers and addicts, not medical marijuana patients.

Justices followed other legal avenues in their questioning.

They noted that in Oregon, it's illegal to conceal a weapon without first obtaining a license, just as it's illegal to possess marijuana unless a person obtains a medical marijuana card.

Both the concealed weapons permit and the medical marijuana card allow a person to do something that would otherwise be illegal.

Justice Rives Kistler wondered, "Why is the license to carry a concealed weapon not like the medical marijuana act?"

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail

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