How — and why — I became a drug smuggler

For the last 18 months, I have been smuggling marijuana into one of the nation’s most conservative states: Utah.

I moved to Salt Lake City from Oakland in late 2013. Since that time, I’ve traveled regularly — both for work and to bring in illegal medicine.

The disparities between a state with safe access and one without legal cannabis are incredible. In legal states, medical miracles are happening every day. In places like Utah, people are suffering and dying.

Utah is the “Crossroads of the West,” and the state is surrounded on almost all sides by legal marijuana.

Two major interstates, Interstate-80 and Interstate-15, intersect in Salt Lake City. Both roads lead to California, the first state to enact medical marijuana legalization and begin the trend that’s now in almost half the country.

To the east is Colorado, where the drive to total access and the country’s booming-est marijuana economy is a lovely wind through red rock deserts and the Rocky Mountains’ highest peaks. West lies Nevada, the only medical cannabis state with reciprocity — meaning a California recommendation is legally valid. That, combined with the flat wastelands of the Great Basin, makes for a fast, anxiety-free drive. A few hours north through Yellowstone National Park is Montana, the only state that voted for a Republican for president the same year it voted to legalize medical marijuana (George W. Bush in 2004). To the northwest are the legal states of Washington and Oregon. South through the desert are Arizona and New Mexico, both states with functional medical cannabis programs.

But the West isn’t won. In the center of it all are three conservative low-population states that have resisted the change around them for 20 years: Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. All three states poll majority support for medical cannabis, yet the medicine remains illegal and growers, users, distributors, and smugglers are still punished.

In Idaho, possession of over a pound is punished with 15 years in state prison. If I were to get busted in Wyoming, the true middle of nowhere, just 0.3 grams of cannabis concentrate could land me in prison for five years. At home in Utah, possession of less than a pound is considered to be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in state prison.

But more importantly, if I were to get caught transporting cannabis across state borders, I could face mandatory minimums of five to 15 years in federal prison, depending on the amount I am carrying, under federal drug trafficking laws.

Yet I smuggle — because I don’t have a choice. Regardless of what state I am in, I will still have Crohn’s disease.

I was diagnosed in 2004, just days before I moved to San Francisco for college. Within months, I had over a foot of my colon surgically removed. Doctors told me I could expect more surgeries and eventually a colostomy bag, as early as my 30s.

I received my first medical marijuana recommendation within a month of surgery, and defied all those odds.

I have not needed more surgery, there has been no serious progression of my disease, and I have now been completely pharmaceutical free for two years using medical marijuana in conjunction with diet and lifestyle changes — thanks to cannabis.

All humans have a network of receptors — the endocannabinoid system — which regulates essential functions such as pain, mood, digestion, sleep, inflammation, and appetite. Chemical compounds produced by the body, called endogenous cannabinoids, interact with these receptors.

Patients like me have a scientifically proven need for cannabis. Patients with Crohn’s disease are thought by researchers to be endocannabinoid deficient, meaning our bodies are not producing enough endogenous cannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids, sourced from cannabis, can be consumed to supplement the deficiency. Thanks to extensive research in Israel, Crohn’s is one of the few conditions for which there are credible, placebo-controlled studies confirming the ability of cannabis to put symptoms into remission. Thus, I know that marijuana is keeping me healthy.

When I first moved to Utah from California, I was naive about how bad the black market was for marijuana. The last time I had to find a dealer was when I was 16 years old and smoking out of apples after school. After buying contaminated weed, it became clear to me the only way to stay healthy was to smuggle.

When I flew, I carried medicine to Utah in both my checked and carry-on baggage, along with copies of my California doctor’s recommendation and a handwritten letter about my condition. When I drove, I locked it in the trunk in smell-proof containers with the same documentation.

Each landing and border crossing induced the same level of anxiety, but I turned on my cruise control and kept going.

At first I just smuggled for myself. But after meeting other patients it became clear I had to smuggle for others. I met other patients with autoimmune disorders just like mine, except they spent years of their lives in dysfunctional physical states. Their diseases progressed and their lives fell apart while I worked, traveled, earned a master’s degree, and kept my symptoms under control.

I had rules. Everyone was coached on how to talk to police and I made sure to never make a profit. If I ever got caught, I wanted to make it 100 percent clear to a jury that I wasn’t smuggling for money. In the United States, there is jury nullification, meaning juries have a right to acquit a defendant even if they find them guilty of the charges. In essence, a jury has the right to make a political statement in trial. It would be hard to paint me as a drug kingpin, and with 72 percent of the Utah public supporting safe access to medical cannabis, I stood a good chance of finding a sympathetic jury.

I also did it because I knew I wouldn’t get busted in the first place. They deny it, but police profile. I made sure to fit the right one. I dressed conservatively and slapped a Bringham Young University sticker on my bumper, to suggest to Highway Patrol that I was a Mormon. But most obviously, I am a white woman. The chances that I’d be searched for marijuana even if I were to get pulled over are laughably slim.

A change at the federal level seems to be on the horizon, but it could be years before the rest of the country has safe access to functional medical cannabis systems. In many states that have “approved” medical cannabis, there’s still no access. We are also still waiting for the medical marijuana industry to be allowed to compete in a rationally regulated and legalized market.

Propaganda still drives law in Utah and nationally. The changes proposed at the federal level pander more to the ideology of the prohibition of cannabis than the facts and science now known about it.

Meanwhile, people will still be sick. So other people will still be forced to smuggle.