TACOMA, Wash. — Karen Strand didn't think she'd get in trouble for having a small container of medical marijuana when she went hiking in Olympic National Park this summer.
President Barack Obama, she remembered, had said the federal government had "bigger fish to fry" than people who follow state marijuana laws, and Washington state had just legalized pot.
PORTLAND — People who would like to grow hemp in Oregon for fiber and textile production say a federal decision not to challenge marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado gives them the green light.
U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall in Portland said her office would not interfere with hemp production so long as the state creates robust controls and enforcement.
A state law legalizing hemp production has been on hold since it was passed in 2009, but lawmakers said the Obama administration's new approach to state marijuana laws should allow Oregon regulators to start making rules for growing hemp.
Oregon is one of seven states with laws that permit the production of industrial hemp. Hemp and marijuana both are cannabis sativa, but hemp has only a negligible amount of the ingredient in marijuana that produces highs.
— The Associated Press
But a ranger pulled her over on a remote gravel road, and Strand wound up as one of at least 27,700 people cited for having pot on federal land since 2009, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal court data. The number of citations is small compared to the hundreds of millions of visitors to national parks, forests and monuments each year.
But it nevertheless illustrates one of the many issues Washington, Colorado and other states face in complying with last month's Justice Department memo that requires them to address eight federal law enforcement priorities if they want to regulate marijuana. Among those priorities is keeping marijuana use and possession off federal property.
State officials have no plans to license pot gardens or stores on federal land, but beyond that, they say, it's not clear what they can do to discourage backpackers or campers from bringing a few joints into Rocky Mountain or Mount Rainier National Park. "It's not one of the big topics we've talked a lot about," said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Thousands of people receive tickets every year charging them with having pot on U.S. property — a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The charges typically don't result in jail time but often do require at least one court appearance. They are frequently negotiated down to an infraction, akin to a traffic ticket, and a fine of up to a few hundred dollars.
The number of people cited nationally has dropped, from 6,282 in 2009 to 5,772 in 2012, and is on pace to hit about 5,300 this year, according to data from the U.S. Courts Central Violations Bureau. The citations were issued at national parks, seashores, forests, military bases and monuments.
There were even 10 tickets issued at the Pentagon.
Defendants say being prosecuted for having tiny amounts of pot on U.S. land belies the Obama administration's assertions that going after people who comply with state marijuana laws is not a priority.
Strand, 36, was pulled over for having a broken taillight, and the ranger reported that he could smell fresh pot. She was ticketed for having 2 grams — far less than the ounce, or 28 grams, allowed by Washington's recreational pot law, or the 24 ounces allowed by the state's medical marijuana law.
"It is exceptionally confusing," she said.