Marijuana is considered medicinal in a growing number of states, but is still classified as an illegal drug by the federal government. The clash between in laws is playing out at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints on busy highways.
Some patients, who have to travel through the checkpoints, feel like they are caught in the middle.
“My palms will get sweaty, my heartbeat increases,” said Justin Sevey, 22, a patient in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program. “I don’t know why I even feel this. I should have nothing to be afraid of.”
Even on long road trips Sevey does not carry any marijuana with him when he has to go through a checkpoint.
“One time in particular I was pulled over at the checkpoint. A dog had supposedly hit on me,” Sevey said.
He told the Border Patrol agent he was a patient in the medical marijuana program, but the agent did not want to see the card.
“He said ‘show me the weed’ essentially and if I didn’t hand it to him, he was going to take me to jail,” said Sevey.
He was allowed to leave the checkpoint after agents searched his vehicle and did not find anything.
“It is federal jurisdiction not state jurisdiction,” said New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
“And so the Border Patrol, if they find that marijuana, are able to do what they please because they don’t enforce state law they enforce federal law,” said Martinez, who inherited the medical marijuana program from her predecessor.
“If you’re caught federally, what’s going to happen? You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said George, a patient who does not want to use his last name because he lives in a tiny town.
“Going back and forth though the checkpoints for me was quite stressful,” said the former insurance adjuster, who used to travel through the checkpoints on a regular basis.
Some patients have limited their routes and changed their routines to avoid checkpoints.
“I think everybody who has a card knows it’s a checkerboard, now you’re covered; now you’re not,” said Rich, another small town resident who does not want to use his last name.
Despite their concerns, the federal government allows for some discretion for medical marijuana.
A U.S. Department of Justice memo sent to U.S. attorneys in 2009 advises federal prosecutors, in states where medical marijuana is approved, to use their limited resources to focus on “significant marijuana traffickers” rather than “individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses that use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen.”
That same memo reaffirmed, “The Department of Justice is committed to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in all states.”
Just across the state line in Texas, enforcement is evident. Texas is the only southwest border state that does not allow possession of marijuana for any purpose. Arizona, New Mexico and California all have medical marijuana programs.
Celebrities traveling through what’s been dubbed “the checkpoint to the stars” in Sierra Blanca have been among those arrested. Singers Fiona Apple, Snoop Dog and Willie Nelson have all faced charges.
That possibility worries patients like Sevey. Even though he does not carry any marijuana through checkpoints, he still tries to maintain a low profile.
“Since I’ve cut my hair I haven’t had a single problem yet,” said Sevey.