Marijuana is legal for recreational use in eight states plus the District, and medical use is authorized in 21 additional states. But it remains illegal for all purposes under federal law. In the view of CBP, Stashlogix's containers are “drug paraphernalia,” even though everyone involved acknowledges the product is aimed at preventing drug use by children.
The case highlights the ever-growing disconnect between permissive state laws and restrictive federal policies on marijuana use. And it underscores how the strict application of decades-old federal drug rules can, at times, increase the risks of marijuana use in places where it's already legal.
Back in 2014, the burgeoning legal marijuana industry had a problem. The nation's first recreational pot shops opened in Colorado that year, selling not just the plant itself but all manner of sweet and savory snacks infused with it. That brought a raft of news reports about the dangers of children accidentally ingesting marijuana products.
The actual risk to kids was generally overstated. But it was nevertheless true that new marijuana products were flooding the market. Consumers didn't have much experience with them. And many of them were in the form of sweet edible products, palatable to children, dogs, grandparents and anybody else who might happen to be walking by.
Surveys indicate that over half of current marijuana users nationwide are parents. But only 11 percent of them actually lock up their pot.
“People didn't have ways to safely store these items out of reach of kids, other than up on shelves or in sock drawers,” Skip Stone, a former civil engineer in Boulder, said in an interview. So in 2014, he and a partner launched a company called Stashlogix, creating cases and containers “for the storage and transport of medicine, tobacco & other stuff.”
The company's most popular product: Small, lockable cases complete with tiny jars and odor-neutralizing inserts. “People love the product,” Stone said. “They use it for all sorts of things, but cannabis is definitely one of them. They keep it locked, they feel safer, they feel more responsible.”
Things were going great. Business was brisk and Stone hired three employees. But it all came crashing to a halt a few months ago, when he received the customs notice in the mail.
“This is to officially notify you that Customs and Border Protection seized the property described below at Los Angeles International Airport on April 28, 2017,” the letter read. The agency had seized 1,000 of Stone's storage bags, valued at $12,000. CBP said the bags were subject to forfeiture because “it is unlawful for any person to import drug paraphernalia.”
In a separate letter explaining the ruling, CBP acknowledged that “standing alone, the Stashlogix storage case can be viewed as a multi-purpose storage case with no association with or to controlled substances.” However, it noted that the storage cases come with an odor-absorbing carbon insert that could be used to conceal the smell of marijuana.
U.S. drug paraphernalia laws are written extremely broadly, allowing authorities to consider not just the products themselves but also how the products are being used in the real world. The CBP letter goes on to cite favorable reviews of the storage case on blogs like the Stoner Mom and the Weed Blog, indicating that marijuana consumers use the cases to store their pot at home.
In sum, according to CBP, the evidence suggests “that there exists one consistent and primary use for the Stashlogix storage cases; namely, the storage and concealment of marijuana.” That's legal justification for keeping the cases out of the country even if the product's purpose is to conceal marijuana from children and lock it out of their reach.
Jaime Ruiz, a spokesman for CBP, said in an email that the agency can't discuss the specifics of this case, but added that they are required by law to seize and forfeit drug paraphernalia.
The ruling has turned Stone's business upside down. In addition to the $12,000 lost in the blocked shipment, Stone said he has an additional $18,000 in product overseas that has to be declared a loss because he can no longer get it shipped to Colorado. The financial difficulties imposed by the ruling have caused him to lay off all three of his employees.
Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said the incident is “incredibly frustrating” and counterproductive. “The whole point of this product is to minimize harm to [children] that we're trying to protect,” she added.
At the moment, Stone is appealing the ruling. He is also trying to find a stateside manufacturer for his cases, as Customs can't block shipments of goods produced domestically. Theoretically some other federal agency, like the Drug Enforcement Administration, could still interfere with that production. But the DEA hasn't traditionally placed a high priority on paraphernalia cases (with one high-profile exception).
“It's going to take an act of Congress to clear up some of these contradictions between state and federal law,” he said. “These paraphernalia laws are outdated. Keeping kids safe should be more important than outdated regulations.”