BIG BEND, Texas— The cookie tin that sits on my kitchen table contains the ashes of a man I never met.
A friend of a friend left it at my house when she crossed over the border into Mexico for a day trip. It's filled with her father’s ashes, but before his death the tin used to contain her stash of weed, so it was left with me to avoid the drug-sniffing dogs near the Texas border.
In this part of Texas, it's not uncommon for people to take similar precautions when it comes to marijuana. For Americans who smoke weed recreationally, living near the border means playing by a whole new set of strict rules—even as other parts of the country ease off on enforcement.
People who travel the nearly 100 miles south from the town of Marfa — a hipster enclave replete with young artists— to Big Bend National Park, a vast swath of the Chihuahuan Desert that flanks the Mexican border along the Rio Grande, usually manage to evade border patrol scrutiny on the way to the park, a favorite spot to get high and commune with nature for the day. But heading back home along the same road can be a different story.
Jeremy, a 27-year-old resident of the Big Bend region, says there are two rules for getting high in the park: 1) smoke what you bring; 2) if there's any weed left over, ditch it in the park.
Bringing weed back is not an option. That's because northbound traffic is subject to inspection at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint 50 miles inland from the Mexican border. And if the dogs detect even small amounts of illicit drugs, Border Patrol agents can conduct a secondary search of their vehicle, including suitcases and personal handbags.
If drugs are found, passengers are detained and handed over to the county sheriff to get booked.
Some residents who know the procedure and enjoy a recreational toke on the weekends say they keep stashes of weed hidden around the park. But weekend trippers who are unfamiliar with border checkpoints can get caught easily. In fact, most drug busts within the Big Bend sector are of U.S. citizens who get netted at the checkpoints while carrying small amounts of drugs that qualify as personal use, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
A study conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that Border Patrol agents catch more U.S. citizens with drugs than Mexicans, and the numbers are increasing.
Liz Rogers, a veteran defense attorney in Big Bend, said most of her current clients are white, upper-middle class gringos who got busted carrying small amounts of weed. “I have about 20 cases pending right now," she said. "And I had 25 last year. I have never had clients that are so similar in the sense that they’re all college-educated, and generally with a couple degrees.”
Rogers added: “The majority are from the University of Texas at Austin, but I had my first Texas A&M client, who’s headed to the London School of Economics. I just want to keep a binder with their résumés.”
But school smarts and street smarts are two very different things.
“What I’m surprised about is that people have no idea about our checkpoints out here," Rogers told me. "My main question to them is, ‘Didn’t you know?’ And they say: ‘But we’re citizens'.”
Rogers says possession of marijuana is the most common drug charge. It can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the amount found. Since edibles are weighed in their entirety, regardless of what trace amount of marijuana is baked in, a seemingly harmless pot brownie can easily turn into something much more severe. Anything over four ounces is a felony offense.
Mushrooms are another drug that Rogers has been seeing a lot of lately. Possession of the hallucinogenic drug is a second-degree felony with possible punishment of two to 20 years in prison.
In many cases, Rogers said, her clients are granted “pretrial diversion,” which allows certain lesser offenders an alternative to prosecution through a program of supervision and services administered by the U.S. Probation Service. Those who complete the probationary term can be granted a dismissal.
Still, it’s a hefty toll to pay for a little bit of weekend fun.
“They have no idea,” Rogers said. “They drive right into it.”