California Cannabis is Legal, But Lawyers Urge Caution Near Borders

California businesses operate legally all over the state (under certain licensing and oversight conditions), but that doesn’t mean companies can expect a hassle if they operate near an international boarder.Los Angeles marijuana business attorneys

Of course, lack of harmony between the state and federal positions on marijuana is nothing new. But it’s important for marijuana businesses in cities close to international borders to use extra caution, and consult with a California cannabis lawyer for insight on how best to protect their investment, operation and employees from legal headaches. As The Los Angeles Times reported recently, those in Imperial and San Diego counties especially need to beware due to the closeness of the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Boarder Patrol has the authority to establish checkpoints that stretch as far north as 100 miles past the international line.

In one reason case, a small van transporting about $15,000 of marijuana wholesale – locally grown, certified and state-legal – from Imperial County to a state-licensed dispensary about three hours north. However, it was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway – 20 miles from the actual U.S.-Mexico boarder. The distributor reports federal agents seized the entire load.

It’s incidents like this that have prompted some marijuana dispensaries, delivery operators and others to avoid these areas – especially Imperial County. That’s been problematic for several operators in that region.

For example, one of the few state-certified testing labs in Southern California revealed it no longer makes testing trips to cannabis farms and dispensaries in Imperial County. The risk is just too great. In turn, that makes it tough for legal operators to do business there, but some say they’ve been left with little choice. As the lab’s CEO put it: “They’ve trapped a corner of the state.”

At any given time, there could be up to nine checkpoints within 65 miles north of the U.S.-California border. Primarily, these exist along I-5 North, I-8 West and I-15 North, with some on more rural stretches.

As far as federal agents are concerned, setting up these checkpoints allows for an additional measure to halt illegal immigration of people coming in through Mexico who may have slipped passed the border without detection.

It is true that the region is a hot spot for drug trafficking across the border. The checkpoints are viewed as the final defense before those substances reach larger distribution hubs in other areas. Big drug busts involving cocaine, heroine, methamphetamine and fentanyl are reported with some regularity. But there is still a question of how much authority federal agents have when it comes to accosting citizens of the U.S., particularly those who routinely cross the border for school, work or errands. Nonetheless, courts have ruled time and again in the government’s favor.

The lines have gotten blurrier though since California legalized marijuana for recreational use four years ago (though sales didn’t ramp up until two years ago). The U.S. government’s position is that marijuana (containing more than 0.3 percent THC concentration) is still illegal, classified as a Schedule I narcotic. Therefore, it remains subject to federal forfeiture if a load happens to cross a U.S. border checkpoint – even one dozens of miles from the U.S. border.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always seized. There are reports of substantial volumes of state-legal cannabis products being quietly ushered through these checkpoints. But there is no clear distinction between what’s legal and what isn’t.
The state itself has a host of stringent rules for any company legally transporting marijuana. The product needs to be locked and secured, not visible from outside, protected by a security system and clearly packaged and labeled. Distributors need to ensure their transport operators are licensed, permitted and have all their documentation and shipping manifests easily accessible when they approach one of these checkpoints. But then, it’s up to the discretion of federal agents.
Some cannabis companies say their drivers aren’t hassled much when they pass through the checkpoints, which sometimes aren’t even open. But because much is left up to the agents, it’s still possible that a load with every T crossed and I dotted can be seized. That means state-legal marijuana businesses are ultimately taking a gamble at every checkpoint they approach.
Consult with an experienced Los Angeles marijuana business lawyer for information about the best ways to protect your company and your people and to be prepared in the event you are ensnared in a legal issue.
The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, ancillary companies, patients, doctors and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 949-375-4734.
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