Drug-sniffing dogs at some of the checkpoints, especially the ones south of Tucson and through Texas, find literally tons of marijuana being smuggled from Mexico.

But the Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials in the Southwest report that no checkpoints in the United States bust as many small-time marijuana users as the ones near Yuma, on I-8 and Arizona 95.

The past three years have seen an explosion of such cases. In just 11 months last year, the two checkpoints nabbed more than 1,200 people for possession of marijuana — and usually for smaller amounts than what Mary carried.

Andy Hartmark
Andy Hartmark

The majority of the busts occurred at the checkpoint along eastbound I-8, the freeway that carries vacationers between Arizona and San Diego.

Consequences are toughest for people caught with hard drugs. Possession of such drugs as meth, cocaine, or heroin will result in a long drive to the county jail in Yuma. But even for personal amounts of marijuana, citations are issued that can result in fines and big hassles.

The I-8 checkpoint garnered national attention in January after rapper Lil Wayne was arrested there. He was charged with carrying marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, and a handgun. He pleaded not guilty last month.

Few would argue that big dope smugglers or those carrying an arsenal of hard drugs shouldn't feel the pinch of the law. If it weren't for the trained dogs, smugglers could run thousands of pounds of drugs through the Yuma Sector checkpoints.

But the vast majority of people getting busted at checkpoints in Arizona near Yuma aren't smugglers or illegal immigrants. They aren't even big-shot partiers like Lil Wayne. They're just average people who happen to be carrying a smidgen of marijuana in their vehicles.

They might never be caught if it weren't for an exception granted the Border Patrol to set up roadblocks with trained dogs. All the Border Patrol checkpoints, not just the ones near Yuma, take advantage of special powers that experts say contradict normal constitutional search-and-seizure rules.

So many marijuana users have been caught that, last year, Yuma officials had to streamline the legal process. In a program unique to the Yuma Sector, Border Patrol agents were given the authority to write citations in low-quantity marijuana cases as though they were deputies working for the Yuma County Sheriff's Office.

The program even was anointed with a catchy federal handle: Operation Citation.

The deputizing of the federal agents means it's easier than ever to get busted. And the program reflects how busting minor pot users is what the agents working at the checkpoints — whose primary mission is supposed to be stopping illegal human trafficking — spend much of their time doing.

A review of 1,052 of the citations issued last year showed that more than 40 percent were issued to Arizonans, presumably on their way back from California. Of those, Phoenix and Tucson residents made up the majority. The rest were split among Californians, 44 percent, and people from other states. A handful of those cited listed hometowns in other countries, including Mexico, Spain, England, and Austria.

Most were cited for possessing just a few grams of marijuana, or a pipe containing marijuana residue. (A gram is about the weight of a large paper clip).

If there's more than one person in the vehicle and no one admits ownership of the marijuana, Border Patrol policy dictates that the citation goes to the driver.

It's not just the number of dogs that makes the Yuma checkpoints so different. Border Patrol checkpoints just a few miles away near El Centro, California, including a new one on westbound I-8, also use dogs. But marijuana laws are far more lax in California, resulting in far fewer citations and much-less-serious legal problems.

In the unlikely event that you do get busted on your way to San Diego for a small amount of marijuana at the California-side I-8 checkpoint west of the state line, you will be hit with nothing more than a $100 fine. In California, possession of an ounce or less of pot is not even prosecuted as a misdemeanor, it's a base-level "infraction."

But you'd better not risk bringing even a tiny amount of pot back from the beach — because nothing demonstrates how differently marijuana possession is viewed officially by California compared to Arizona than the checkpoint busts this side of Yuma.

Arizona has the stiffest marijuana laws in the country. Possession of any amount or of any kind of drug paraphernalia (even a small pipe) is technically a felony.

Technically, because charges against small-time users are knocked down to misdemeanors in Yuma County and in other Arizona counties, including Maricopa. Leniency is one reason — marijuana isn't considered as dangerous as other drugs. But it's also true that, if prosecuted as felonies, the sheer number of marijuana cases would overwhelm local court systems.

Still, a misdemeanor conviction for pot means that you must pay hundreds of dollars in fines in Arizona. And, it's not uncommon for defendants to fork over thousands of dollars in attorney fees trying to avoid a conviction — which, for some, means loss of a job or disqualification for federal financial aid.

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