Knock, knock. Who’s there? A federal officer on a bicycle pulling you over because he smells pot wafting from your car.
That’s about how it went. I am a California medical cannabis card holder, and received a notice of violation for possessing cannabis in Yosemite National Park. Although Yosemite is in California and I identified myself as a medical cannabis patient, the park ranger proceeded to conduct a full search of my car and cited me for possessing cannabis within the amount allowed by California for my personal medical use.
I am still waiting for my United States District Court date and location to arrive in the mail from the Central Violations Bureau, and may have to wait up to a year after the date of offense. This offense is punishable by a fine up to $5,000, six months’ imprisonment, or both.
I am sharing my own personal experience to educate and warn others. In speaking with multiple lawyers to gain perspective for this article, they shared client stories with me after I mentioned my Yosemite charge. It sounds like those facing a charge comparable to mine usually get off with paying a reasonable fine. One lawyer even said to me, “Good thing you’re white.” Isn’t that the sad reality of our law enforcement, judicial systems and society?
However, I also teased out stories of situations where it doesn’t go so well. For example, non-citizens at a U.S. border may face a lifetime ban from the U.S. if they admit to prior cannabis use, even in a U.S. state or another country where it may be legal. This is grounds to be considered inadmissible to enter the U.S. And we may continue to see senseless crackdowns like this by the federal government: Omar Figueroa, founder of the Law Offices of Omar Figueroa, a boutique law firm focusing on cannabis law in California, believes that “we are seeing the end of the Wild West in cannabis, and the beginning of over-regulation.”
“Cannabis attorneys are in violation of federal law; we all are; we all have something to worry about here.”
Apparently, even lawyers practicing cannabis law have reason to worry about cannabis’ Schedule I classification. Timothy Fair, cannabis law attorney and owner of Vermont Cannabis Solutions, describes this double-edged sword: “Under the American Bar Association, attorneys cannot tell clients to break the law. So, by offering legal advice and support to establish a cannabis dispensary, technically and in the eyes of a federal prosecutor, a cannabis attorney is aiding an illicit or criminal enterprise, which could be grounds for being disbarred. Cannabis attorneys are in violation of federal law; we all are; we all have something to worry about here.”
So where does this leave us? The federal legalization timeline is completely unknown and unpredictable, particularly considering the current administration. The best thing you can do is know your rights and your boundaries. Here are a few tips:
- Do not possess or use on federal property, including monuments and national parks.
- Do not consume while driving and do not drive while impaired. Ensure that your car is maintained and legal to operate on the road. Do not have an open container in a car, boat or plane.
- Do not fly with cannabis, even on flights between two legalized states.
- Do not smoke in public.
- If you are detained: Do not consent to a police search. Do not admit to prior cannabis use; refuse to answer the question. Plead the Fifth.
As the Legal Director on the Board of Directors for California NORML, Bill Panzer, puts it: Just remember to tell officers that “my lawyer told me not to talk to the police and if I don’t take his advice, he’ll double the price.”