Crossing Lines: Cannabis on the Borders

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On my amazing journey with this healing plant, I’ve endured the patient registration process in New Mexico, California (the way registration should be if it remains required, which should end in my opinion) and Colorado. As a medical cannabis patient, I understand my rights to possess or use cannabis ends at my state’s border. The greatest problem I face is that my medical issues, which cannabis has proven to effectively treat, do not end at the same state border – they are with me wherever I roam.

After defending my dissertation, The Medical Cannabis Recommendation: An Integral Exploration of Doctor-Patient Experiences in December 2016, a writing excursion and lengthy road trip seemed like the best way to celebrate and find a way to return to sanity after a long, difficult academic journey. The road trip (with little planned itinerary) came to contain several months writing near Ensenada, Mexico. It wasn’t difficult to maintain my medication regime with the cannabis oil (mostly combined with coconut oil in edible capsules) that I discreetly travel with, combined with the occasional “Colorado handshake” from a friend along the route. Although I live “like a criminal” during travel – in that I continue to use cannabis in some form – I was relaxing on the road and my sanity was slowly returning.

For those of you who haven’t crossed the U.S.A. – Mexico border at San Ysidro, California, it is a bit of a circus leading up to an interrogation. The long line of vehicles awaiting America are met by vendor after vendor: tacos, tequila, dolls, garden ceramics, t-shirts, dicine, crossing state lines with cannabis, travjackets, statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ to those of drunken monkeys. Slowly but surely, over about 45 minutes I make my way to the U.S. border patrol officer.

“How long have I been in Mexico? Where? Why am I crossing into the U.S. today?” She then requests I roll the window behind me down so she can look into my back seat and I comply to this typical, simple request. She reaches in, grabbing my backpack and opens it to see my clothes. She asks again how long I plan to stay in San Diego – when she unzips another compartment and holds up a clean, unused chillum (small glass cannabis pipe).

“Is this yours?”

I glance into my rear view and see what she is holding in her hand. My heart sinks but I know that I have little cannabis in my possession, so I share, “Yes, ma’am it is. I am a medical cannabis patient in Colorado and I didn’t see that in the bag when I packed it. As you can see, it hasn’t been used.” This minor oversight bought me the second-level inspection and another 45-minute wait before border officer #2 engaged with me. During this wait, those few joints I’d rolled, which were in the pocket of the sweater I now wore, concerned me but I reassured myself. I had less than three grams – a misdemeanor ticket at best, right? The anxiety built.

The second border officer was also a young female in her early to mid-twenties, who first directed me to drive through a large x-ray machine. Since my car’s guts weren’t visibly filled with drugs or immigrants or explosives, I was directed to stand in a yellow tape outlined box while she personally searched my car. Unfortunately, the havoc she wreaked upon my car turned up “marijuana” – though I wasn’t sure exactly what – or in what amount – besides exceedingly small, a roach?

Damn, now she was asking me to remove everything from the pockets of my sweater. The cigarette package with joints was shown (only the outside, not the joints inside) and laid on the table as directed, along with several Kleenex, my cellphone, and car keys. I was patted down and then the officer walked away. During her absence, I put my sweater back on and placed the cigarette pack of joints right back into the pocket, figuring the trashcan beside me would be searched if I dumped them. I really wasn’t sure at that moment what to do, I just tried to remain calm.

A few minutes later when she returned, I was requested once again to remove my sweater – I did, leaving the joint loaded pack in the pocket. The young officer walked me to another square outlined on the pavement and suggested that I not panic. Why? She was getting ready to handcuff me while a more in-depth search of my car occurred – after all, I had Schedule I drugs in my possession now.

At 53-years old, this is the only time in my life I have ever been handcuffed or detained for any reason. But I didn’t panic – I’d known for years that this was bound to happen at some time. After all, I do travel with my endocannabinoid system – and the medication I’ve found that works best for me (after decades of health issues). Also, I could have heeded a better warning from participants in my own study. But, damn…

States like California, Arizona, and New Mexico either directly border, or are within security boundaries of the U.S. Border Patrol in relation to, the Mexico border. California has had a medical cannabis program since 1996, New Mexico, 2007 and Arizona, 2010.  The border patrol officers I have just met have in fact let me know that I am not in California. I am a U.S. citizen on federal land. I am not within a state. I have no rights to possess or use cannabis; on federal land – as in federal policy – cannabis is a Schedule I drug with no known medical use. It is manifestly illegal, although it has saved my life.

In my 2016 research study entitled, The Medical Cannabis Recommendation: An Integral Exploration of Doctor-Patient Experiences, 25% of the patients that participated are registered cannabis patients living in a border state. Every single one, either self-reported an incident or provided details of incidents that happened to other patients within their state’s borders. Physicians from these states also shared concerns about federal border patrol and reported incidents described to them by patients. These stories highlight the importance of resolving this issue federally, for the citizens of America.

A New Mexico physician declares,

Well, it is federally illegal. They aren’t doing it as much now as they were doing before, they have eased up. Before they would arrest you, even if you were a cannabis patient. They’d hassle you. Now what the patients tell me is that, “They took my medicine. They made me throw it away!” This happens! It’s horrible! It is just horrible for the patient!

An Arizona physician proclaims,

When you have a cancer patient that just went to a dispensary and bought some tincture, chocolates, and some salve. They’ve spent hundreds of dollars. Then they go through a checkpoint and the dogs alert. They take the patient’s medicine away from them!

A California patient shares his frightening and marginalizing experience,

My son and I were near San Diego…when we got stopped at a checkpoint by border patrol. [About 15 minutes from where I am currently chained to a bench]. Now, mind you, we had not been to Mexico, we’d been to a dispensary and were less than 20 minutes from our home. Also, we are both natural-born American citizens and both have a medical marijuana license. When they asked if the dogs would hit on anything, I told them “They won’t hit on anything illegal, but I have my medical marijuana and my license in that bag,” as I pointed to the backseat and my locked bag. They ransacked both of us, individually, and my vehicle and everything in it. I didn’t get a ticket or anything, but they took $400 in cannabis – along with the dispensary receipt, $300 plus in cash from our wallets, and walked away – just drove off without another word, like thieves. It would cost me more in attorney fees than $700, so they won. They robbed me and there is nothing I can do about it. No one I can report it to that will help.  It is still very traumatizing to think about that day.

Though these patients were driving in a state where they live, that has implemented a medical cannabis program, the Schedule I status of cannabis sativa at the federal level continues to interfere with hard-won state rights (which are still minimal, at best). Though both patients and physicians have the right to engage in a conversation about the recommendation and use of cannabis, if it remains a Schedule I substance they will continue to expect and fear federal interference and intimidation. I myself, am experiencing federal intimidation at this very moment.

After about another forty-five minutes, the young female officer returns with items from my car in a plastic box that is also mine. She lays everything on the counter, I watch through peripheral vision as she and two other officers discuss the contents. Each takes a turn looking inside a pack of cigarettes. Holy shit, I figure they’ve found it all – all three grams.

At the end of this escapade, started by a clean pipe stupidly left in a backpack, I am only given a verbal warning for two pipes (the clean one that started this and another that had been in the bottom of my purse) and “Marijuana, which we will dispose of.”

Interestingly, I was lead out to my car without cuffs and shown that my vapor pens were left (hot tip: they did not assume they were cannabis but that they were nicotine) neatly on the console while the rest of my car had been turned inside out. Shown the gate, I was back in California territory and let go a huge sigh of relief. I still had a few hours before my friend’s plane was due, so while hitting hard on a vape pen I decided to grab a bite to eat. Before I ate I checked inside my purse and found that the feds left my cannabis capsules. Though they wouldn’t work nearly as fast as a joint, the vape pens were helping and the capsules would still help.

However, it was after my meal that I started to fade. I didn’t feel well and the stress of the day had not helped. My fibromyalgia pain was escalating as a winter storm started rolling into the coast. The vape pens and capsules helped; I took another capsule, but I was truly aching for a joint. There’s just something about smoking a joint that settles my stomach and lowers my pain levels; yet, I was without. And still another 30-40 minutes from edible relief.

As I got out of the car it started to rain, I thought I should grab my sweater, just in case. As I put my car keys into my sweater pocket, I felt something. It was the joints I’d rolled and put in an old cigarette package that morning. The feds missed my meds! A big tear (of joyous relief) rolled down my cheek. I got back into my car and smoked a joint…as I cried.

California medicalized the use of cannabis in 1996. More than a score of years later I find myself, a world-renown cannabis expert, a peer-reviewed Ph.D., sitting in my car in Chula Vista, crying while smoking a joint after being federally harassed much of the day. This War on Drugs has gone on too long and the demonization of cannabis must end. This I am certain of, as I sit crying and smoking.

I, like the patients who participated in my study, and the thousands I’ve come to know since launching The eCS Therapy Center in 2015 (and the millions of medical cannabis patients that reside across this great country) am willing to occasionally break laws that are unjust. The relief I’ve found as a cannabis patient is enormous and it motivates me forward to help others, but it’s still not legal. It’s only slightly decriminalized, in some states. On federal territory I am reminded it is statutorily illegal and our government’s response remains imprisoning and punishing our citizens for cannabis crimes. It’s time to remove cannabis from the CSA and return it to the hands of the people, who’ve been criminalized too long for “harboring” this healing plant. The CSA Schedule I status for cannabis is a barrier that must be broken.

Dr. Regina Nelson is President of The eCS Therapy Center, a national 501(c)(3) Nonprofit. Your charitable donation (at www.MyECSTherapy.ORG) supports research and education that helps normalize the use of cannabis. This is her fourth book published on the subject of cannabis.