Despite amendment, pot still illegal on federal lands

Colorado has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but those who toke up on federal lands, including Mesa Verde National Park, are risking a citation.

"It's illegal at the park, so don't ruin your vacation with a ticket," said the park's Chief Ranger Jessie Farias. "People need to be aware that when you are visiting national parks, federal laws apply. We have issued a few tickets (for marijuana)."

Under U.S. law, possessing or using marijuana is illegal anywhere in the country, even in states that have legalized it.

Amendment 64, passed by Colorado voters in November, allows limited use, sale and cultivation of marijuana for adults 21 and over. However, the law is in direct conflict with the U.S. Controlled Substance Act (CSA), which deems marijuana illegal. It is listed as a Schedule One drug, the most harmful with no medical benefits, in the same category as LSD, heroin and ecstasy.

"Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, federal law trumps state law, so as long as marijuana is illegal federally, it is illegal everywhere," said James Candelaria, Colorado Assistant U.S. Attorney, in Durango.

But as acceptance of the drug grows, there has been more leniency from the federal government on its use. After taking office in 2009, President Obama instructed U.S. Attorneys to back off prosecution of legitimate medical marijuana use and centers.

RECONCILING

THE RULES

Bills making their way through Congress this year would decriminalize marijuana nationally or exempt personal use from enforcement in states that have legalized it from federal drug laws.

House Bill 1523 would amend the CSA so that it does not apply to marijuana activities that comply with state laws legalizing the drug. House Bill 499 attempts to strike marijuana from the CSA and regulate it like alcohol. Both bills are being debated in committee. But until federal drug laws are changed, using, distributing, or cultivating marijuana remains a risk.

"The role of the Department of Justice is to enforce current federal laws and that includes laws prohibiting marijuana," said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office. "That being said, we don't focus on tracking down recreational users, but if we come across them they will be cited."

In 2000 Colorado became one of the first states to legalize medicinal marijuana by adding an amendment to the state constitution. After Pres. Obama was elected, the industry boomed. So far 18 states, and the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana for medicinal uses. Patients must qualify and register to obtain the privileges of purchasing and consuming the drug, and the industry is closely monitored.

Sensing a political window of opportunity, voters in Colorado and Washington both legalized recreational use of marijuana for adults last November, a first in the country.

Public land officials are leaning toward leeway for medicinal users of the drug, and an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude for recreational users.

"With medical marijuana, that is a different story," said MVNP Chief Farias. "If you have a card, and are not consuming in public, then we will work with that. We don't want to deny card holders; they have a right to their medicine, but we will talk to them about the regulations."

He added that authentic medical marijuana cards at the park "are few and far between," and claiming marijuana use for medical purposes without a card won't cut it.

Bill Kelley, who writes a blog called flyawaywithbill.com, claims Mesa Verde Park rangers have a no-tolerance policy towards marijuana. He wrote that rangers mistook food crumbs in his car as marijuana and then questioned him about it when he returned from a hike from Prater Ridge. Farias said he was not familiar with the incident.

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL

On Colorado Forest Service and BLM lands, discretion is advised, and users could find themselves busted for openly smoking pot.

A nuanced statement from the San Juan National Forest implies that users of marijuana should stay out of public view.

"Possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law and applies to federal lands. And citizens have the same rights to privacy on federal lands as they do off of federal lands."

In other words, it's safer to indulge in the once-forbidden foliage in a tent or camper, not on a trail, around a campfire or on the road.

"When federal officers come across (users), they can be charged," warned Dorschner, "especially when it leads to safety concerns like driving under the influence, impacts on children, and potential fire risk - then we take a more serious approach."

Colorado is bracing for pot tourism. Retail marijuana stores are expected to open beginning in 2014 and will accept out of state customers. Local towns are taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding whether to allow retail stores, a choice they have under Amendment 64.

"I think the word is out that it's not allowed at national parks, but we have had people say they didn't know, so it's a learning curve," Farias said. "I'm sure we will get a few more (recreational pot smokers) when there are 2,000 to 4,000 visitors a day here."