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Can medical pot users pack heat?

SALEM — The right of Oregonians to use marijuana for medical reasons and also to obtain concealed handgun permits is being challenged by local sheriffs who say federal law prevents those people from packing heat.

Advocates for the state's medical marijuana law countered Wednesday in the Oregon Court of Appeals that the sheriffs simply don't like the program and are looking for ways to undermine it.

Both sides now are looking to the courts to say definitively whether there's anything to prevent Oregon from issuing the concealed handgun permits to users of medicinal pot.

The head of the national marijuana advocacy group NORML said he's not aware of the issue being raised in the 13 other states that allow medicinal use of pot.

"It's kind of unique to Oregon that a couple of sheriffs there seem to want to defer to federal law when they really ought to be looking at enforcing state laws," Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive director, said in an interview from Washington, D.C.

He also noted that the Obama administration in recent weeks has signaled that federal prosecutors will not go after people in those states who use medical marijuana legally.

"The administration is going to defer to local and state governments on these issues," he said.

Sheriffs from Washington and Jackson counties say, though, that they want clarification from the court on whether federal gun laws prohibiting illegal drug users from possessing handguns applies to people who have permits to use marijuana for medical reasons. Marijuana is still classified as a controlled substance under federal law, they said.

Lower courts had twice ordered the two sheriffs to give weapons permits to people who had lost them because they are medical marijuana users, and both appealed those rulings.

Attorney Elmer Dickens, representing Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon, said the sheriff thinks he's in an untenable position.

"We don't think it's appropriate for the sheriff to be issuing a license to carry something that the federal government has said they are not even entitled to possess," Dickens said in court argumments.

A Portland lawyer for the advocates argued in court Wednesday that federal law doesn't trump Oregon's concealed handgun permit law.

Medical marijuana users who meet all other criteria cannot be deprived of the right to a concealed handgun permit, said Leland Berger, who helped write Oregon's medical marijuana law.

"What this is about is that the sheriffs don't like the medical marijuana law. Twelve years after it was approved by voters, the sheriffs want to discriminate against patients," he said.

Steven Schwerdt said he had a concealed handgun permit for six years before the Washington county sheriff's office revoked it when he became a medical marijuana user.

"I'm no criminal; I'm just a guy who can't physically run away from dangerous situations," said Schwerdt, who uses medical marijuana to relieve the symptoms of severe arthritis and gout.

Schwerdt got his gun permit back in May 2008 when a lower court judge overruled the sheriff's office on grounds that there was no legitimate reason to deny him one.