Arizonans Could Cross States Lines for Legal Marijuana, but Face Risk in Bringing It Home

Arizonans may soon be able to buy legal marijuana in California and Nevada, as well as Colorado. But bringing the pot back home could be problematic.EXPAND
Arizonans may soon be able to buy legal marijuana in California and Nevada, as well as Colorado. But bringing the pot back home could be problematic.

Arizona didn't wake up on Monday morning to a change in the vote-count — Prop 205's still failing miserably. Its chances of passing as officials count the remaining votes this week are about the same as Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk dabbing a hit of shatter on the evening news.

Unless President-elect Trump goes back on his promise to let states decide their own marijuana laws, though, in about a year Arizona could see legal marijuana stores on its western and northwestern borders, or very close to them. The new, adult-use pot shops coming to California and Nevada now that voters in those states approved full-on legalization will be much closer to the bulk of Arizona's population than those in Colorado.

In theory, cities like Blythe, on the border of Arizona and California, could put legal marijuana within a 2.5-hour drive from central Phoenix. Tucson residents could make a 3.5-hour drive to Winterhaven, California, if shops open there, or travel 4.5 hours to El Centro, where medical-marijuana dispensaries already exist.

Las Vegas, which will have retail marijuana stores, is about 4.5 hours from Phoenix by car.

Although Colorado allowed recreational marijuana stores to open in 2014, the nearest to Phoenix so far have been in Durango, which is more than a seven-hour drive away. When California and Nevada retail shops open in about a year, many Arizonans who live near state-border areas like Yuma and Kingman may find legal marijuana less than an hour's drive away.

However, Arizonans who buy marijuana in other states need to understand the law, and the legal consequences of bringing pot home.

Possession of any amount of marijuana is a felony in Arizona for people without a medical-marijuana card, if you haven't heard. Felony charges are often dropped, but offenders are typically booked into a jail and hit with the choice of an expensive fine and a misdemeanor conviction, or an expensive fine and completion of a drug-treatment program.

By contrast, possessing an ounce or less of marijuana in Colorado, California, Nevada, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington D.C. is now legal under the laws of those states. Using marijuana in public still isn't legal in any of those states, it should be mentioned.

Troopers with the Arizona Department of Public Safety don't plan any increased enforcement because of the Nevada and California laws, says DPS spokesman Captain Damon Cecil. He points out that in the past 10 years or so, Arizona law officers have already seen increased smuggling of California marijuana into Arizona. The agency plans no ramp-up in enforcement because officials don't believe it's necessary, and because California's newly approved Proposition 64 won't change how DPS "does business," Cecil says.

"Go get high and come back," he says. "Unless you're impaired [and driving], you go and smoke away."

If not DPS, then perhaps other Arizona police agencies on the borders of California and Nevada will boost their anti-marijuana enforcement on the highways leading from legal states.

Stories abound of police in Nebraska or Wyoming pulling over more drivers in recent years when they believe the drivers might be carrying weed, but it's difficult to tell if police are targeting such drivers, or simply that more weed-carrying drivers are coming from Colorado.

"I got pulled over on my way to music festival last year because I had a Colorado sticker in my car," a Reddit user wrote in 2013. "No joke. The cop mentioned it as soon as he pulled me over."

"Got pulled over driving home from Vedauwoo for no reason except for having Colorado plates," wrote another Internet user on MountainProject.com in 2014. "Wyoming cops are definitely stopping Colorado vehicles looking for pot, even on the way back home."

Despite Cecil's information about DPS policy, in other words, it seems possible that cops may indeed be interested in stopping Arizona-bound cars for possible marijuana arrests. Certainly, smaller jurisdictions may be attracted to the extra money these felony busts could pull in. Arizonans who smuggle weed across state borders could face more scrutiny in the future than they would now.

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Arizonans who plan to bring their purchases home won't have to worry about drug-sniffing-dog checkpoints in most areas, at least. The U.S. Supreme Court shot down random drug checkpoints in a landmark decision in 2000. However, that case left standing a 1976 decision that allows the Border Patrol to set up such checkpoints anywhere within 100 miles of an international border.

Many Arizonans who drive to and from San Diego are familiar with the most prominent of these checkpoints — the eastbound checkpoint on Interstate 8 east of Yuma. The Border Patrol checkpoint there and others in Arizona thwart cartel operations involving tons of illegal drugs from Mexico. But, as New Times reported back in 2008, a partnership between the Yuma County Sheriff's Office and the Border Patrol has meant misery for thousands of average cannabis consumers busted at the I-8 checkpoint under Arizona's stiff anti-marijuana law.

The federal checkpoints and partnership will continue to exist despite California legalization, says Alfonso Zavala, a Yuma County Sheriff's Office spokesman.

"It's still illegal in Arizona," Zavala points out. Under the current agreement, Border Patrol agents who are cross-certified as Yuma County deputies write local felony citations for people caught by the checkpoint's drug-sniffing canines, making the process ultra-convenient — not to mention lucrative — for Yuma County. Registered medical-marijuana patients won't get charged, but federal agents still seize their medicine.

Medical card or not, bringing marijuana across state lines remains a federal offense. Arizonans who can legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of medicinal marijuana under state law still would be committing a federal crime by taking pot from California, Colorado, Nevada, or anywhere else into Arizona. Yet the feds don't seem to care about such minor crimes. At Border Patrol checkpoints in California and New Mexico, which don't have felony possession laws like Arizona's, federal agents often merely seize any found marijuana without bringing federal charges.

Small marijuana busts by federal authorities do occasionally show up in Arizona federal charging documents — in nearly all cases, these busts involve rangers in federal parklands catching park users with small amounts of pot; offenders are charged with federal misdemeanors and fined a few hundred bucks.

Still, the feds reserve the right to bust someone for interstate trafficking of marijuana. As a chart published by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency explains, trafficking up to 50 kilograms of marijuana is a felony that might merit up to a five-year prison sentence for the first offense. While prosecution of a trafficking case involving just five grams may be unheard of now, that could change.

A complicating factor for bringing pot across state lines could be whether or not an offender is also in possession of a firearm. Arizona law says it's a felony to possess both a firearm and marijuana without a medical card, though in reality, local police and prosecutors don't typically try to add additional firearms charges to simple marijuana-possession cases.

As explained, people in possession of small amounts of marijuana are unlikely to be charged by the feds unless they're in a national park, but the risk level goes up for people taking marijuana and a gun across state lines who happen to be caught in the act by a federal agent. Technically, trafficking drugs while in possession of a firearm could qualify a person for a five-year minimum-mandatory sentence. The actual charge and penalty depends greatly on the circumstance; the Border Patrol, for example, isn't currently submitting felony cases to federal prosecutors when they find Arizonans in possession of both firearms and marijuana.

Officials from the U.S. DEA failed to return a message on Monday about taking small amounts of marijuana and/or firearms across state lines. The Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office couldn't immediately address the issue, either; spokesman Cosme Lopez says only that if a law-enforcement agency submits a marijuana case to the office, the federal prosecutors may prosecute it or let local jurisdictions handle it.

Arizonans who travel to California for any reason in the next few years should also be aware of California's firearm laws. Besides the multitude of gun-control laws passed by the California State Legislature, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 63 last week, making it a felony to buy ammunition without a special permit, or to possess magazines for their guns that hold more than 10 rounds even if they were bought before an earlier law in 2000.

According to Sergeant Jose Nunez of the California Highway Patrol, that means an Arizonan can now possess up to an ounce of marijuana in his or car legally in California, but not a firearm magazine that could hold more than 10 rounds. If the gun was concealed, that could bring an additional charge.

Once across Arizona's border, a loaded, concealed firearm with a 15-round clip becomes perfectly legal, and it's the marijuana that becomes illegal.


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