SAN DIEGO — The small van, packed with 10 pounds of California-grown, California-certified cannabis flower, left its home base in Imperial County and headed north.
The delivery was labeled and packaged to be sold in a state-licensed dispensary in the town of Needles.
It didn’t get far.
The van was stopped at a Border Patrol highway checkpoint some 20 miles from the actual international border, and the entire load, worth $15,000 in wholesale value, was seized by federal agents, according to the distributor, Movocan.
Such is the reality of operating a state-licensed cannabis business in the southernmost reaches of California.
The tension between state and federal stances over marijuana isn’t new, but it plays out uniquely in San Diego and Imperial counties because of the proximity of the U.S.-Mexico border and a legal authority that allows Border Patrol checkpoints to extend as far as 100 miles north of the international line.
With marijuana remaining illegal under federal law, the potential for seizure or even arrest at these checkpoints has caused many state-certified cannabis businesses to step lightly in the region — particularly in Imperial County.
For now, the risk is too great for Infinite Chemical Analysis Lab, one of the region’s few state-certified testing labs. The San Diego-based facility has decided not to make the sampling trips to Imperial County anymore, a move that limits the ability for other state-licensed businesses to sell and distribute from there.
“It’s like they’ve trapped a corner of the state,” Josh Swider, the lab’s co-founder and CEO, said of the Border Patrol.
There are at any time as many as nine interior checkpoints positioned as far as 63 miles from the California-Mexico border. The most well known and well traveled are westbound Interstate 8 in Pine Valley, northbound Interstate 5 in San Clemente and northbound Interstate 15 near Temecula, along with outposts on more rural highways near Campo, Ocotillo, the Salton Sea and Glamis.
The Border Patrol has long used the checkpoints as an additional layer of enforcement to stop northbound unauthorized immigrants who may have made it past the U.S.-Mexico border undetected.
The San Diego region is also one of the busiest in terms of cross-border drug trafficking, and these checkpoints are seen as a last line of defense before the illicit loads are funneled to major distribution points north. Large seizures of methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, often found hidden in secret compartments or mixed within commercial goods, are common.
The checkpoints have been the subject of intense debate over how far the authority to inspect extends to U.S. citizens, especially those who live in rural areas and must cross through them daily to work, go to school or run errands.
But despite several legal challenges over the years, the courts have consistently concluded that the law remains on the government’s side.
Since California voters legalized adult-use, recreational marijuana use in 2016, with sales beginning in 2018, the federal government has been clear in its official stance.
Published: July 04, 2020
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News