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 Barack 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 to 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 last month’s 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 Park.
“It’s not one of the big topics we’ve talked a lot about,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
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 grows 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 last few years, while Colorado’s is almost 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 first 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 as well as several other people caught with marijuana 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.
Former schoolteacher Melanie Cease, of Seattle, said a park ranger approached her one day in June at a secluded campsite in Olympic National Park. He came to make sure her dog was on a leash, but then saw an empty pipe on the picnic table.
With his hand on his gun, she said, the ranger demanded she turn over whatever pot she had. Cease, 48, was cited for having a “trace amount,” according to the ranger’s report.
“I’ve never been arrested in my life, and now I’m being threatened with six months in jail and a $5,000 fine for using my medicine?” she said. “It was my understanding the government was not going to mess with individual patients.”
Strand and Cease both pleaded not guilty, and their cases were set for trial in 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.”