TACOMA — 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.
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.
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.
Other concerns on the DOJ’s list include keeping marijuana away from kids and cartels, preventing drugged driving and pot-related gun violence, and keeping unregulated marijuana grows from spoiling federal land.
Thousands of people receive tickets every year charging them with having pot on U.S. property — a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 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.
Former schoolteacher Melanie Cease, of Seattle, said a park ranger approached her one day in June at a secluded campsite in Olympic National Park. He came to make sure her dog was on a leash, but then saw an empty pipe on the picnic table.
With his hand on his gun, she said, the ranger demanded she turn over whatever pot she had. Cease, 48, was cited for having a “trace amount.”
“I’ve never been arrested in my life, and now I’m being threatened with six months in jail and a $5,000 fine for using my medicine?” she said. “It was my understanding the government was not going to mess with individual patients.”
Strand and Cease both pleaded not guilty, and their cases were set for trial in October.
Strand and her husband, Thomas, said they remain troubled by what they said felt like harassment from the park ranger. He repeatedly placed his hand on his gun when speaking to them, they said.
“It’s a beautiful place up there,” Thomas Strand said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.”