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Cannabis Consumers in Arizona, Beware! Are Federal Immigration Checkpoints Being Used For Legally Dubious Automobile Searches?

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director March 10, 2008

    Are you planning to travel anytime soon on the beautiful highways and byways of Arizona? Were you planning on cannabis being part of that journey? Well, forewarned is forearmed! Cannabis consumers and medical patients who use cannabis need to know about law enforcement efforts in the greater southwest United States, notably in Arizona.

    Also, the personal account below from a NORML supporter traveling from California to Arizona underscores the need for cannabis reform groups to prioritize the passage of state laws that allow lawful medical cannabis patients to enter a state with their physician-recommended medicine without fear of criminal arrest, otherwise known as reciprocity.

    Update: More details found in Ray Stern’s informative Phoenix New Times March 12 article.

    Despite the passage more than 10 years ago of the first state laws to protect patients from the criminal justice system’s widely cast net, NORML, the NORML Legal Committee and it’s state chapters continue to receive hundreds of inquiries a year from bona fide medical cannabis patients who’ve been ensnared by the general cannabis prohibition laws.

    Historically, the federal government has been charged with patrolling and regulating travel across the international border with Mexico. However in a TSA, post-911 America, federal law enforcement under the guise of immigration control, are now regularly setting up automobile checkpoints hundreds of miles from their traditional jurisdiction—20 miles or so of the US border. However, these checkpoints are clearly being used as drug checkpoints as well, often staffed with drug-sniffing K-9 units and DRE officers (Drug Recognition Experts).

    Since mid-January NORML has received numerous complaints from citizens caught up in these checkpoints in Arizona and inquiries regarding the constitutionality of these questionable checkpoints. Also, a number of news outlets in Arizona have contacted NORML looking for victims of these roadblocks who’ve been arrested on cannabis charges.

    The reasons why these automobile checkpoints raise constitutional concerns are twofold: federal law enforcement operating checkpoints outside of the border region and attempts to circumvent a 2000 US Supreme Court decision from Indiana that limited the scope and place of law enforcement automobile checkpoints regarding roadside drug interdiction efforts, under the guise of a federal ‘border’ program searching for undocumented persons.

    Major Need for Improvement in Existing and Future Medical Cannabis Laws; Need for Reciprocity Laws for Medical Cannabis is Obvious
    This blog entry offers a ‘twofer’, with a revealing look at, and not often discussed, flaws in today’s ad hoc state medical marijuana laws: The need for reciprocity laws for medical cannabis patients.

    Case in point: Consider the plight of medical cannabis patients like ‘Jim W.’, who travel outside a state where they have a physician’s recommendation to use cannabis, only to rudely discover that they are victims of geography—that their medicine is illegal, they’re treated as criminals and their valuable medicine is confiscated by law enforcement.

    Unedited email sent to NORML, March 7, 2008:

    Below is an experience I had the week of March 3, 2008 on a trip to Arizona. I am sending it to you as a courtesy to warn others. Arizona has apparently been turned into a police state.

    Went to Arizona with two friends last Tuesday from San Diego to watch a baseball game and play golf. 50 miles past the Arizona border heading towards Phoenix we came upon a border patrol checkpoint on Hwy 8.

    Not the kind you’d find in California with just a look around the car and a few questions. This stop had dogs! Next thing we know, we’re over in secondary and my Toyota Sequoia has a dog going through it.

    Picture us, three sixty year old guys getting hassled to the max on the side of the road. I’m an ex- teacher and my friends both own their own companies.

    When asked if we had any “drugs, weapons, etc. in the car I said, “Yes,” marijuana, and showed the agent my medical marijuana card.

    I was told that Arizona has zero tolerance and after 45 minutes of searching our golf bags and personal belongings, they found a total of four grams.

    When they weighed it, they also weighed the ziplock freezer bag! The four grams came out to be eight ounces! When I called the agent on it, he got agitated and said, “I can call the sheriff’s department right now and bust all three of you.”

    I acquiesced and was subsequently given a ticket to appear in court in Wellton, Arizona.

    The experience was not a pretty sight for three guys just wanting to enjoy ourselves in Arizona.

    Please warn others that Arizona is high risk when traveling across the borders and they truly do not give a shit who you are.

    -Jim W.

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