Nationwide the attitudes on marijuana use are changing rapidly. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Washington D.C. have legalized its recreational use. The Pew Research Center found that more than half of the country supports legalizing marijuana. Yet on federal land, as throughout Wyoming and Idaho, marijuana possession remains illegal.
What happens when a person is caught with marijuana in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks?
Marijuana possession on federal land, such as a national park, national forest or BLM land, is a federal crime. It is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The typical scenario is that a person is driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone in the national park. A ranger pulls the person over and smells the odor of marijuana, a substance legal in 21 states for medical use. The ranger convinces the person to let them search their car and the person is charged with a crime.
The rangers can be aggressive in enforcing the drug laws. Consider this hypothetical scenario. Ranger: “I see you have Colorado plates. Tell me, do you have any marijuana in your vehicle?” Driver: “Umm. Ummm.” Ranger: “I’m going to need to have you step out of the car…”. See my post on what to say when you’re pulled over by law enforcement.
The most common marijuana charge is for a violation of 36 CFR 2.35(b)(2), which criminalizes possession of a controlled substance (often called PCS by law enforcement). The statutes says:
(b) Controlled substances. The following are prohibited:(1) The delivery of a controlled substance, except when distribution is made by a practitioner in accordance with applicable law. For the purposes of this paragraph, delivery means the actual, attempted or constructive transfer of a controlled substance whether or not there exists an agency relationship.(2) The possession of a controlled substance, unless such substance was obtained by the possessor directly, or pursuant to a valid prescription or order, from a practitioner acting in the course of professional practice or otherwise allowed by Federal or State law.
If you read the statute, you may think that you are entitled to possess the substance since you have a medical marijuana card or are from a state where marijuana possession is legal. On federal land that doesn’t matter. Marijuana is a schedule one controlled substance and possession is a federal crime.
To be clear: possessing marijuana in a national park is a Class B misdemeanor and a crime. Sometimes rangers will say, “don’t worry it’s just a citation.” That’s technically true. The piece of paper in your hand is a citation. But it’s a citation for a misdemeanor, same as if you were booked into jail or handcuffed.
In addition to the potential jail time and fine, a marijuana conviction affects your ability to qualify for student loans, pass a background check, get a job or an apartment, and travel abroad. If in the future, you are in a child custody dispute, then any criminal conviction can be used against you. If you are not a United States citizen, there are also immigration consequences.
Because of the consequences of a criminal conviction, I strongly urge anyone charged with possession of a controlled substance in Grand Teton or Yellowstone to give me a call. You might expect a criminal defense attorney to say that. But it’s your time, money and reputation on the line, so get professional help.
PS: If you’re interested in the business of marijuana, the Verge has an article on a surreal marijuana trade show in California. We live in interesting times.