By all means, enjoy California the way it’s meant to be enjoyed. Cross over the Golden Gate Bridge to wine country. Cruise—if people still do that—the Venice Beach boardwalk. Surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon, as only someone in California can, as insufferable as they may sound—and now that the nation’s most-populous state has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, do it all with a joint in your hand.
Just put it out and hide your stash when you enter Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Death Valley or any one of the many other prominent national parks in California.
This is where marijuana legalization does not apply—and, as the Sacramento Bee reported, this is where you’ll find humorless National Parks Service rangers happy to hand you a misdemeanor citation for the “legal” joint in your pocket.
As many surprised beachgoers, hikers and other enthusiasts of the outdoors who also enjoy a little cannabis now and then have been reminded, state law has no bearing on federal land.
While having much of the country’s natural beauty under federal stewardship is a fine thing, it also means having forests, mountains and beaches under federal law—meaning, the second you enter a national park or other federal property in California, marijuana legalization no longer applies.
Yosemite is California’s most-visited national park, and as such, it’s also the national park where rangers make the most pot busts. Rangers issued 465 citations and made 123 cannabis-related arrests there in the past two years, according to the Bee, second only to Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)—which is in San Francisco, of all places.
While rangers and attorneys say that most pot busts accompany a more serious crime—and some “offenders” are allowed to go scot-free, though only after surrendering their weed—bringing weed onto federal land is still a commonly punished mistake.
“A lot of people don’t recognize that you are going into a completely different jurisdiction; it’s just like going into a different state. A lot of people don’t know that,” Fresno, California-based attorney Mike Mitchell told the Bee. “They just think they’re going into a park, like any other California park.”
Part of the problem is that in some instances, like GGNRA in San Francisco, you can enter a “national park” without any signage, entryway or other obvious warning that legal conduct can now earn you a court date. In this specific situation, entering the danger zone is as innocent as walking onto the beach from the street.
Another part of the problem is that while Barack Obama’s administration has not made cracking down on the cannabis industry a priority for the Justice Department, the same can’t be said for park rangers and pot smokers.
This is also true in other states.
In Washington, 146 people received citations for marijuana possession on federal land immediately following that state’s vote to legalize in 2012, the Bee reported.
Some attorneys like Mitchell are hopeful that federal authorities will ease up a bit, given California’s generally lax attitude on weed, and the wide margin by which marijuana legalization was approved. But there’s no guarantee of that, and none of the underlying risk is likely to change anytime soon.
As Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, said during his confirmation hearings on Tuesday, it’s up to Congress to make changes to federal law prohibiting marijuana. Until it does, the readiest reminder of how whacked federal law is might be a trip to the nearest federal park, and the drug war throwback enforcement therein.
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