The August issue of Texas Monthly carries an ultimately amusing feature about the Sierra Blanca inspection station, an infamous U.S. Customs and Border Protection road stop that's ensnared a number of high-profile musicians, including Willie Nelson, Fiona Apple, Nelly, and Snoop Dogg. The Hollywood Reporter once referred to it as “the checkpoint of no return.”
A year ago, Texas Monthly contributing editor Al Reinert was driving east along the transcontinental highway when the Border Patrol routinely stopped him. He'd forgotten there were two purple marijuana buds in the shaving kit packed in his car's trunk, but a drug-sniffing dog named Blackie uncovered the weed immediately. (These shepherds are so reliably trained that a cop will tell Reinert that one of his animals successfully detected weed "packed in plastic and hidden inside factory-sealed number-ten cans of jalapeño peppers.")
Consequently, Reinert was arrested, his fingerprints recorded, and handcuffed alongside an innocuous-seeming middle-aged couple, one of whom had been found with two joints in her purse. Meanwhile the feds agents sent his information to national police databases. Nothing turned up.
The Feds, who are partly installed to deter illegal immigration, are only really interested in major cases. Yet they catch so many casual weed smokers like Reinert, those small-time offenders get turned over to the State of Texas—specifically Hudspeth County, a 3,500 person region that doesn't even have a full-time prosecutor. This is the same county whose Sheriff's Department Public Information Officer wrote an open letter to Fiona Apple after her detainment, claiming they'd helped "jump-start" her career with the bust, the same county whose attorney suggested that Willie Nelson sing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” at the local courthouse and they'd let him go. They are not equipped to handle any of this.
So as Reinert details in his story, most of the time, these minor offenders are only ticketed with "possession of 'drug paraphernalia,'" a misdemeanor that costs $500 in fines and doesn’t require a court appearance. Nelson, for example, was caught at the border with seven ounces, a felony weight, but when the courthouse measured his stash, it magically weighed far less, which qualified him for a misdemeanor and he was merely fined $500 plus court costs. As Reinert notes, "The fact that you were caught red-handed with actual pot is conveniently ignored."
Why so much effort for a process that mostly hassles small-time stoners?
The rationale for all this effort was later explained to me by Carry Huffman, the deputy chief patrol agent of the Big Bend sector. “Every pothead isn’t a bad guy,” he said. “But every bad guy is a pothead.” By detaining people for a couple of joints, the Border Patrol, which since 2003 has been part of the Department of Homeland Security, is able to investigate everything about them, and this can occasionally lead to catching some genuinely bad guys. Car thieves and fugitives and completely clueless big-time smugglers—not to mention terrorists—all can be snared in the follow-up to the canine alarm. Of course, that happens only rarely; nationally, the Border Patrol has caught just one so-called terrorist, a University of Houston student practicing paramilitary operations in the Big Bend. But it’s not backing off.
Once again, for effect: “Every pothead isn’t a bad guy,” he said. “But every bad guy is a pothead.” It's quite a maxim.