EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – As border states like New Mexico legalize the use of recreational marijuana, lawmakers and federal officials remind residents it’s still illegal to carry the drug through ports of entry and Border Patrol highway checkpoints.
Since April 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have stopped more than two dozen people carrying small amounts of marijuana at New Mexico and neighboring West Texas ports of entry. The drugs have been seized in all instances.
“As some states have decriminalized the use and possession of marijuana it is important that members of the traveling public clearly understand that federal law still prohibits the importation of any amount of this drug,” said CBP El Paso Director of Field Operations Hector Mancha. “Do not cross the border with any amount of marijuana at all.”
The same applies at dozens of permanent Border Patrol highway checkpoints inside border states. The checkpoints are federal facilities set up decades ago to detect the illegal trafficking of migrants, drugs and other contraband.
These facilities where motorists are asked to state their citizenship and their vehicles are subject to search or to be sniffed out by a canine officer while they idle in line exist up to 60 miles north of the actual U.S.-Mexico border in some cases.
New Mexico lawmakers in late March and early April passed legislation legalizing adult use of cannabis, decriminalizing possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana, providing a $50 fine for possession of up to one ounce and licensing sales and cultivation. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed the bills into law on April 12.
New Mexico state Rep. Javier Martinez, the architect of the recently passed cannabis laws, said the issue of not being able to carry small amounts of the substance through parts of your own state has been around since 2007. That’s when New Mexico legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
“If you cross that checkpoint with anything that violates federal law, you are subject to penalties. That’s federal law and, until that changes, that’s going to continue to be the case,” he said. “It’s not only checkpoints. When you travel tribal land sometimes could have the same impact because it’s federal jurisdiction.”
Martinez said he’s confident the U.S. will eventually modify federal law to be consistent with the growing number of states that either permit the use of medical marijuana or have decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis.
“We’re now the 17th state that has legalized cannabis. I think the more states that legalize, the greater the pressure on the federal government to reclassify this agricultural product, this plant, which at the end of the day it’s all it is,” he added. “It’s only a matter of time.”
In the meantime, he urged constituents to be aware of these federal jurisdictions as they travel within their own state. For instance, if a resident of Las Cruces — the state’s second-largest city — want to travel to the state capital of Santa Fe or even neighboring Hatch, he or she will have to cross a Border Patrol checkpoint.
According to CBP, in addition to seizure of marijuana and associated paraphernalia, individuals may face federal civil penalties of up to $1,000. CBP officers may also turn the case over to state and local departments for prosecution.
“Processing these cases also has a negative impact on our ability to manage the flow of legitimate traffic,” said acting CBP El Paso port Director Greta Campos.” When we encounter a case like this a CBP officer is taken off the line for several hours and that lane will be closed until the process is completed.”