Some states may legalize pot, but on federal grounds, U.S. government has final say

September 17, 2013

TACOMA, Wash. — Karen Strand didn’t think she’d get in trouble for having a small container of medical marijuana when she went hiking in Olympic National Park this summer.

President Obama, she remembered, had said the federal government had “bigger fish to fry” than people who follow state marijuana laws, and Washington state had just legalized pot.

But a ranger pulled her over on a remote gravel road, and Strand wound up as one of at least 27,700 people cited for having pot on federal land since 2009, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal court data. The number of citations is small compared with the hundreds of millions of visitors to national parks, forests and monuments each year.

But it nevertheless illustrates one of the many issues Washington, Colorado and other states face in complying with the recent Justice Department memo that requires them to address eight federal law enforcement priorities if they want to regulate marijuana. Among those priorities is keeping marijuana use and possession off federal property.

State officials have no plans to license pot gardens or stores on federal land, but beyond that, they say, it’s not clear what they can do to discourage backpackers or campers from bringing a few joints into Rocky Mountain or Mount Rainier national parks.

“It’s not one of the big topics we’ve talked a lot about,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

Other concerns on the DOJ’s list include keeping marijuana away from kids and cartels, preventing drugged driving and pot-related gun violence, and keeping unregulated marijuana cultivation from spoiling federal land.

Thousands of people receive tickets every year charging them with having pot on U.S. property — a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The charges typically don’t result in jail time, but often do require at least one court appearance. They are frequently negotiated down to an infraction, akin to a traffic ticket, and a fine of up to a few hundred dollars.

Through the first seven months of this year, at least 146 people had been cited in Washington for having pot on federal land, which makes up nearly one-third of the state. At least 135 had been cited in Colorado. Washington’s figure is slightly below the same period for the past few years, while Colorado’s is roughly on track.

The number of people cited nationally has dropped, from 6,282 in 2009 to 5,772 in 2012, and is on pace to hit about 5,300 this year, according to data from the U.S. Courts Central Violations Bureau. The citations were issued at national parks, seashores, forests, military bases and monuments. There were even 10 tickets issued at the Pentagon.

Officials say the actual numbers are likely greater: Park rangers and other federal agents sometimes simply write on the ticket that the offender had a controlled substance, without specifying the drug.

Defendants say being prosecuted for having tiny amounts of pot on U.S. land — especially in Washington, Colorado and states with medical marijuana laws — belies the administration’s assertions that going after people who comply with state marijuana laws is not a priority. The DOJ announced that position in a 2009 memo, though the fine print also made clear that pot isn’t welcome on federal property.

Strand, 36, was pulled over for having a broken taillight, and the ranger reported that he could smell fresh pot. She was ticketed for having 2 grams — far less than the ounce, or 28 grams, allowed by Washington’s recreational pot law, or the 24 ounces allowed by the state’s medical marijuana law.

“It is exceptionally confusing,” she said.

One morning this month, Strand sat in a small, crowded room at the federal courthouse in Tacoma for her initial appearance on charges of marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia — a pipe.

Near her sat her husband and several other people caught with weed on federal land, including a 21-year-old man who was accused of having 0.1 grams during a traffic stop on a highway that skirts Mount Rainier National Park.

“I just thought it was legal now,” Jonah Hunt said. “I didn’t know I was on federal land.”

Barbara Sievers, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the cases, informed the defendants their charges would not be dismissed.

“Regardless of whatever happened in the state, it’s federal law, and it’s federal property,” she said.

Strand pleaded not guilty. The trial is set for October.

Strand and her husband, Thomas, said they remain troubled by what they said felt like harassment from the park ranger. He repeatedly placed his hand on his gun when speaking to them, they said.

“It’s a beautiful place up there,” Thomas Strand said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.”

— Associated Press

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