Patient Charged With Marijuana Possession After Hike on Federal Land

Shortly after Nathan Freddy took this photo (cropped here) on April 26, he was ticketed by a Bureau of Land Management ranger for possessing marijuana.
Shortly after Nathan Freddy took this photo (cropped here) on April 26, he was ticketed by a Bureau of Land Management ranger for possessing marijuana. Courtesy of Nathan Freddy
The April 26 photo shows a young couple in paradise. Nathan Freddy and his partner, with their dog, pose nude in beautiful Aravaipa Canyon, showing off what appears to be large cannabis leaves tattooed on their thighs. The creek water glistens in the light, their dog squints. What happened next wasn't nearly as idyllic.

On their way out, the pair passed a Bureau of Land Management ranger speaking to a group of hikers. The canyon near Winkelman is a protected Arizona treasure, managed by the federal government. Only 50 people per day can enter the canyon, and simply parking in the trailhead parking lot requires obtaining a permit in advance.

The ranger had noticed a green ATV without the proper documentation when he arrived at the parking lot three hours earlier. When the couple reached the parking lot and stood next to the ATV, the ranger stepped up to talk to them.

Freddy claimed he was a member of a group that had a permit. In the course of their conversation he opened his backpack to retrieve something. When he did, the ranger said he smelled marijuana.

Freddy admitted that he had a pipe with him. When the ranger got Freddy's permission to search the bag, he found a jar with more weed, a grinder, and a vape pen. Freddy told the ranger he had a valid Arizona medical marijuana card to treat chronic pain associated with an injury on his left hand. It didn't matter. Freddy was cited under federal law for marijuana possession and for lacking proof of a canyon permit.

Now, Freddy is fighting the case in federal court. He had his first court date last week. Prosecutors offered to drop the charge if he paid half the associated fine but he's refusing to back to down on principle, he told Phoenix New Times.

"I would like to be tried in front of my peers and see what they think," he said.

He believes a jury would see the ridiculousness of the situation.

"I don't think it's right to deal with two sets of rules," he said.

He's been in trouble for marijuana before, when he was 18. But he's trying to do everything right now, he said, including getting certified for a medical marijuana card.

When asked by New Times why he would bring weed on to federal land, Freddy, who's a former forest service seasonal worker, said he thought it would be safer to keep it with him than leave it at his campsite or in his vehicle.

Freddy is just the latest to fall into the gap between state and federal policy on marijuana usage. It's a gap that's especially relevant in Arizona, where over a third of the state is federal land, and one that can escalate a simple recreation issue like a missing hiking permit into something more serious. 

The local Bureau of Land Management office referred questions to the Arizona U.S. Attorney's office, where a spokesperson said she couldn't comment on an ongoing case. She shared a link to a 2018 order from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which repealed previous Obama-administration guidance to generally respect state marijuana laws.

Marc Victor, a local attorney and drug legalization advocate, said that he sees cases come up like this from time. He said that under Sessions there was a noticeable increase in marijuana cases the federal government was pursuing, but the numbers have dropped since.

Victor said he respects Freddy's efforts but that he might not have that much luck with a jury.

What Freddy is hoping for — a group of ordinary citizens on a jury making the decision not to convict because they believe the law or case is unjust — is known as jury nullification. The practice has a long history but Victor said it's difficult to use these days as are jurors are told that they must decide based only on the facts of the case.

"Normally the standard answer is not very good," Victor said of Freddy's odds. However, Victor speculated that Freddy might have some room to argue his case because the regulation he was cited under exempts substances obtained under state law.

For Freddy, this is a chance to stand up against the federal bureaucracy that walks over people. His employer at a print shop in Safford is supportive and is giving him time off to attend his hearings.

"I feel like I'm kind of a position to try," he said.
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter