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Concealed handgun license case clears court hurdle

A three-year legal dispute in Jackson County over issuing concealed handgun licenses to medical marijuana patients has piqued the interest of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involving Sheriff Mike Winters versus Cynthia Willis has cleared an important first hurdle with the high court, which sent out a Sept. 30 letter asking Willis' attorney, Leland Berger, to file a written response to the sheriff's legal arguments.

Winters denied Willis a concealed handgun license in 2008 on the grounds that she uses medical marijuana, considered a controlled substance by the federal government. The sheriff argued that he couldn't give the license to Willis because that would violate the Gun Control Act of 1968. Winters has lost every court case so far, including the Oregon Supreme Court.

In July, Winters appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Willis, a Gold Hill resident, said she hopes the Supreme Court takes up the case, saying it's time someone stood up for individual rights.

"The Second Amendment doesn't say, 'nobody can have a gun if they do cannabis,' " she said. "I'd like to see a firm ruling."

Ryan Kirchoff, county counsel representing Winters, said the fact that the case has advanced to this stage indicates the court is interested in the constitutional arguments presented by the county.

However, Kirchoff said the court's initial interest doesn't ensure it ultimately will hear the case, or even hand down a ruling. He said more will be known after Willis' attorney files a response before the deadline of Oct. 31.

Four votes from the nine-member court are required to push the case onto the formal docket. Of the 10,000 cases sent to the Supreme Court in a given year, only about 200 prompt a formal ruling.

This week, the court rejected 1,800 appeals before its session even began.

The Oregon Supreme Court determined that under the rules of Oregon Revised Statute 166.291, Willis, who has a clean criminal record, should receive a concealed handgun license.

Winters argues the Gun Control Act is designed to keep guns out of the hands of people Congress considered potentially dangerous or irresponsible, such as those who use controlled substances, including medical marijuana users.

The sheriff's petition to the Supreme Court states the Oregon Supreme Court essentially determined federal and state laws serve different purposes. The petition criticizes the Oregon court for skirting the issue of the conflict between federal and state laws.

Washington County, which lost a similar concealed handgun and medical marijuana case, also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Elmer Dickens, senior assistant counsel for Washington County, said the cases are extremely similar.

"The only difference is the names of the parties," he said.

Dickens said the Supreme Court has also expressed similar interest in his county's case, which could get combined with the one in Jackson County.

Leland Berger, attorney for Willis, said he had written the Supreme Court a letter explaining why he didn't think the Jackson County case had any merit.

But he wasn't surprised that the court requested an additional response from him to address the sheriff's specific legal arguments.

However, he said the request doesn't provide a clue as to whether the court will make any kind of ruling.

"I'm not sure what you can read into these tea leaves," he said.

Berger said California had a state versus federal legal dispute involving marijuana.

Officials in San Diego and San Bernardino counties had refused to issue medical marijuana cards, maintaining that California's medical marijuana law would be a violation of federal law, specifically the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2009.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.