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Weed-smoking tourist, caught between fed and state laws, gets barred from US

File: Kushmart, one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in downtown Los Angeles, on Monday afternoon, Feb. 29, 2016.
File: Kushmart, one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in downtown Los Angeles, on Monday afternoon, Feb. 29, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Sarah — who asked that we not use her real name for fear of jeopardizing her job — had been to the United States twice before. But in October 2015, after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport from Santiago, Chile, her conversation with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was more probing than others she'd experienced.

She said that they began with the standard "Why are you here?" and "When was the last time you went to the U.S.?" But instead of letting her through, they moved her to another area and began searching her suitcase, clothes and cosmetics.

CBP was trying to figure out whether Sarah should be allowed into the country. She was trying to figure out why this time they were more suspicious than they'd been in the past. 

As it turned out, Sarah had unwittingly stepped on the wrong side of the law during a trip to Colorado earlier that year when she smoked recreational marijuana — legal in that state.

The tourism industry in Colorado (and likely soon in California) heavily relies on tourists from around the U.S. and the world who come to take advantage of the state's liberal pot laws. But what those tourists sometimes don't understand is that there's a disparity between what state and federal laws allow — that it's easy to run afoul of federal drug laws and that those violations can have serious consequences, including being barred from the country.

Sarah's an example of a tourist caught in that confusing in-between.

At the time, Sarah didn't know why they were questioning her. She thought it might be because of how many times she'd been back and forth to the U.S., or where she'd gone. She still doesn't know what prompted the search.

A last-minute deal on a ticket from Santiago had her boarding a flight to Los Angeles to see her boyfriend, Neal. After her arrival in L.A., she was hoping to get on a bus and make her way to the Bay Area, where Neal lives. They'd been together for a few years, dating long distance, but they were in love and considering moving in together at some point.

"My first thought of him was like a crazy gringo," she said recently. "But... he has a kind of spirit that I really like."

They met while backpacking through the Ecuadorian jungle.

"The funny part is that Neal didn’t know how to talk or speak in Spanish very well," she said. "He was just practicing, learning. And I didn’t speak English before. So, it was a kind of awkward communication, but we match. You know, we could talk. We can align our feelings and everything. And I don’t know, everything started very quickly."

The two stayed in touch and started dating, their lengthy separations punctuated by short trips. Three months in Tennessee. Another three months in Colorado. And in October 2015, she planned a quick trip to San Francisco so that they could spend time together to talk about their future.

At the airport, a CBP officer dug through her belongings.

"Finally, he took my phone... He didn’t ask for permission," she said. "I didn’t have any password on my phone, so [he] just unlocked my phone and started to view everything inside of it. He viewed my messages, my contacts, my emails, my social media. He also viewed my pictures on my cell phone. And he was very interested in Colorado."

He asked her about why she'd gone there, where she stayed and what she did. While the officer was looking through her pictures, he came across images of glass pipes and jars of marijuana, taken inside of a recreational pot shop. He narrowed his inquiries, asking her where she'd taken the photos and whether she'd ever used cannabis.

"I said, yes. I tried marijuana in Colorado," she said. "I went to the store. I pass my passport to the store. They say to me, 'OK, no problem, you can go inside of the store, you can buy whatever you want to buy... and no problem. You are OK. Go to your home. Have fun.'"

He asked her if she'd ever used acid, mushrooms, cocaine or heroin, and whether she'd ever sold any illegal drugs. She said no. 

She was then moved to another room and held for 15 hours. She missed her bus.

When officers came to get her, they told her that she was being denied entry to the U.S. and being sent back to Chile. She was also barred from returning indefinitely. 

"As a foreign national admitting consumed drugs... it’s a reason for the U.S. to refuse your entry," said Jaime Ruiz, a spokesperson for CBP. When asked to comment on Sarah's case, he declined.

CBP was also unable to provide data related to the number of people turned away for violating federal marijuana laws.

When she'd smoked cannabis in Colorado, Sarah had unknowingly broken those federal laws, which classify marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. Even though it's legal to consume recreational pot in Colorado, CBP follows federal, not state law. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, the penalty for consuming a controlled substance is denied entry.

Worried, Neal flew down to Santiago to meet Sarah, where they discussed their future. Over the coming months, they spoke with lawyers and immigration advocates, but they were told repeatedly that the likelihood of Sarah being able to overturn her ban was unlikely. To do so would require time, energy and, most importantly, money that they didn't have.

The prospect of an indefinite ban wore at them. In October 2016, the two split up. 

"I really love Neal. He was amazing. We had an amazing relationship. Like it was almost perfect," Sarah reminisced. "Neal was very important for me, so I really want to see him again."

Sarah says she feels trapped. She can't visit friends in the U.S., and her job for a company based in the States could be put in jeopardy due to the fact that she can't visit headquarters. Now whenever she travels — even if it's not to the U.S. — authorities at the airport ask her why she's been banned from the country.

"I don’t know, I’m kind of tired of it. I just want to be free and go wherever I want without any concern. Without any worry," she said. "I just was doing what I thought it was legal."

Series: HighQ: Your California pot questions answered

This story is part of Take Two's look at California's burgeoning marijuana industry, with audience Q&As, explorations of personal narratives and an examination of how cannabis is changing the state.

Read more in this series, call or text us your questions at (929) 344-1948 or tweet reporter Jacob Margolis.