In a stark reminder that marijuana is still legally risky in some parts of the United States, three Massachusetts women were arrested in upstate New York this week for allegedly trying to smuggle marijuana they had legally purchased in Canada into the United States.
The women were arrested Monday morning while driving across the border from Canada at the Lewiston Queenston Bridge Port of Entry in Lewiston, N.Y., near Niagara Falls.
Authorities say the women — Briha K. Younger, 25 ; Jenae R. Johnson, 28 ; and Micaela G. Ratcliffe, 28, all of Boston — told a Customs and Border Protection officer that there were no marijuana products, narcotics, or contraband in the car.
But Ratcliffe “had a record for a prior incident involving travel with marijuana,” according to a statement from US Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr., so the women were referred for a second inspection.
An officer who searched the vehicle reportedly found “commercial packaged marijuana and marijuana products in multiple bags” as well as multiple joints in Younger’s purse. The investigation “suggested [the marijuana] had been lawfully purchased at marijuana dispensaries in Canada.”
“The possession of marijuana and its importation into the United States remain federal crimes,” Kennedy, who represents the western district of New York, said in a statement. “The fact that it may have been lawfully purchased in Canada does not change that.”
According to the complaint, Younger told authorities they had traveled to Toronto on Friday to attend a festival, and they went to several dispensaries while they were in Canada. All three women admitted to shopping at the dispensaries, and Johnson said she had the receipts from their purchases.
Ratcliffe and Johnson each said they use marijuana to help them sleep, and Ratcliffe said she also uses it for migraines, according to the complaint.
All three women were arrested at the scene, and appeared in court Tuesday, where they were released with conditions. They each face three charges: smuggling of goods into the United States, importation of a controlled substance, and possession of a controlled substance.
The charges could carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Fonda Dawn Kubiak, a public defender who represented all three women at their initial hearings and will represent Younger moving forward, said her goal is to ensure the women don’t get federal felony convictions on their records, which could wreak havoc on their lives.
“These cases are unfortunately otherwise law-abiding citizens getting caught in the dichotomy between legalized marijuana in certain states and countries, and overall US policy that strictly prosecutes possession of marijuana,” she said.
Kubiak warned that travelers need to be aware that even carrying small amounts of personal-use, legally obtained marijuana across the border can have “serious detrimental consequences.”
Kennedy said his office will continue to prosecute people who try bringing marijuana over the border into New York, particularly because of the dangers associated with driving under the influence of marijuana.
“If this office, together with our federal partners, can help to save the lives of innocent potential future victims by curbing the flow of marijuana into our community and/or by letting the public know of the significant legal consequences that flow from being charged with a violation of federal law, then we will not hesitate to act,” Kennedy said.
He also reminded the public that marijuana possession, use, and distribution is against federal law, regardless of its status in Canada and US states that have legalized it.