Thursday, May 6, 2021


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Federal Law Prohibits Use:
Four ways smoking pot can still cause you trouble in New York state

By Douglass Dowty | ddowty@syracuse.com

New York may have legalized recreational marijuana use, but the federal government still considers smoking a joint to be a crime punishable by up to a year in jail. That simple fact can have broad-reaching impacts for those eager to take advantage of the state’s permissive new law: any activity that involves the federal government -- or federal money -- is still forced to ban marijuana or risk losing federal money or blessing.

Some of these activities are predictable, if confounding: no one can bring marijuana back from Canada, even though it’s legal there and legal in New York State. For that matter, no one can bring marijuana back from any other state where it’s legal, as the feds control interstate commerce. (Of course, a federal agent would have to know what’s going on and care enough to enforce the interstate rule.)

But other restrictions have much more far-reaching and profound consequences because every legal gun purchase requires a federal firearm transaction record -- called a Form 4473 -- which includes a question regarding marijuana use. It’s part of the federal background check program. The form makes it very clear that state laws have no bearing as to whether you qualify as an “unlawful user” under the federal rules.

“The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside,” the form states. The only firearm transactions in New York that avoid the form are between spouses, domestic partners and parents/children. Marijuana users can’t apply for a pistol permit, either: the state pistol permit application asks if the applicant is currently using any drugs as defined under federal law.

Going to college

Almost every institution of higher education, whether public or private, takes in federal money, if not for operating costs than for specific projects funded by grants. Federal money flows to big private institutions, such as Syracuse University or Cornell University. niversities are therefore required to follow federal -- not state -- law, or risk losing federal funding. Simply put, marijuana has to be against university rules, even if it’s not against state law.

A recent Syracuse University student recently found that out after being suspended for a year following an incident involving a personal amount of marijuana hidden among chocolate-covered strawberries. Unless he wins a lawsuit overturning SU’s punishment, he’ll be required to reapply to the school after his suspension, writing an essay about what he learned from his mistake. The message is clear: legal pot doesn’t mean college kids can start smoking on the campus quad.

Living in public housing

The same federal purse-strings help pay for public housing. And, like colleges, public housing authorities are not allowed to condone marijuana use. In fact, the federal government has issued a series of letters telling public housing operators that no exceptions can be made -- even for those prescribed marijuana for medicinal use. There’s no “reasonable accommodations” allowed for pot.

On the other hand, the federal government makes it clear that local operators are allowed to act in their own discretion when it comes to instances of marijuana use. Public housing is not required to evict tenants who use pot. But that doesn’t mean it can be officially permitted, either.

Joining the military or getting a federal job

It goes without saying that federal laws dictate what’s allowed in the military or on the federal dime. For active-duty military, marijuana use is a strict no-no. For part-time military personnel, such as Guardsmen, the answer is still no. For civilian employees, the answer is also no.

But that doesn’t mean that pot users will be automatically fired: federal employers can mandate counseling sessions and other remedies, with the end goal being the worker stops using marijuana. And there’s discretion: a clerk will likely get a longer leash than an FBI agent, for example.

Past marijuana use does not disqualify someone from serving in the military or working for the federal government, so long as the recruit or applicant is truthful about past use.


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