By Gene Johnson
The Associated Press
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They don't call them the Great Smoky Mountains for nothing.
An Associated Press analysis of federal court data show that of the more than 27,700 citations issued to people caught with marijuana on federal property since 2009, at least 724 of the tickets were issued at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Among national parks, that figure trails only Yosemite's 939 in California.
The number of citations issued is small compared to the hundreds of millions of visitors to national parks, forests and monuments each year.
But it nevertheless illustrates one of the many issues Washington, Colorado and other states that want to regulate marijuana face in complying with last month's Justice Department memo that calls on them to keep pot from being used, possessed or grown on federal land.
Here's a look at the top national parks, recreation areas and monuments for marijuana busts from Jan. 1, 2009, to July 31, 2013, according to data provided by the U.S. Courts Central Violations Bureau.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA: 939
GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, CA: 902
JEFFERSON NATIONAL EXPANSION MEMORIAL, MO: 847
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, TN/NC: 724
OZARK NATIONAL SCENIC RIVERWAYS, MO: 474
GATEWAY NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, NY/NJ: 313
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, AZ: 257
BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER, AR: 252
LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, NV/AZ: 234
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WY: 230
CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE, MA: 206
WHISKEYTOWN NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, CA: 203
SEQUOIA AND KING CANYON NATIONAL PARK, CA: 173
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, KY: 155
INDEPENDENCE NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK, PA: 148
CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, GA: 147
HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, AR: 138
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CA: 137
PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, TX: 120
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VA: 116
President Barack Obama, she remembered, had said the federal government had “bigger fish to fry” than people who follow state marijuana laws, and Washington state had just legalized pot.
But a ranger pulled her over on a remote gravel road, and Strand became one of at least 27,700 people cited for having pot on federal land since 2009, according to court data.
The number of citations is small compared to the hundreds of millions of visitors to national parks, forests and monuments each year.
It nevertheless illustrates one of the many issues Washington, Colorado and other states face in complying with last month's Justice Department memo requiring them to address eight federal law enforcement priorities if they want to regulate marijuana.
Among those priorities is keeping marijuana use and possession off federal property.
State officials have no plans to license pot gardens or stores on federal land, but beyond that, they say, it's not clear what they can do to discourage backpackers or campers from bringing a few joints into Rocky Mountain or Olympic national parks.
“It's not one of the big topics we've talked a lot about,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Other concerns on the Justice Department's list include keeping marijuana away from kids and cartels, preventing drugged driving and pot-related gun violence, and keeping unregulated marijuana grows from spoiling federal land.
Thousands of people receive tickets every year charging them with having pot on U.S. property — a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The charges typically don't result in jail time, but often do require at least one court appearance.
They are frequently negotiated down to an infraction, akin to a traffic ticket, and a fine of up to a few hundred dollars.
Through the first seven months of this year, at least 146 people had been cited in Washington for having pot on federal land, which makes up nearly one-third of the state.
At least 135 had been cited in Colorado. Washington's figure is slightly below the same period for the past few years, while Colorado's is roughly on track.
The number of people cited nationally has dropped, from 6,282 in 2009 to 5,772 in 2012, and is on pace to hit about 5,300 this year, according to data from the U.S. Courts Central Violations Bureau.
The citations were issued at national parks, seashores, forests, military bases and monuments. There were even 10 tickets issued at the Pentagon.
Officials say the actual numbers are likely greater: Park rangers and other federal agents sometimes simply write on the ticket that the offender had a controlled substance, without specifying the drug.
Defendants say being prosecuted for having tiny amounts of pot on U.S. land — especially in Washington, Colorado and states with medical marijuana laws — belies the administration's assertions that going after people who comply with state marijuana laws is not a priority.
The Justice Department first announced that position in a 2009 memo, though the fine print also made clear that pot isn't welcome on federal property.
Strand, 36, was pulled over in Olympic National Park for having a broken taillight, and the ranger reported that he could smell fresh pot.
She was ticketed for having 2 grams — far less than the ounce, or 28 grams, allowed by Washington's recreational pot law, or the 24 ounces allowed by the state's medical marijuana law.
“It is exceptionally confusing,” she said.
One morning this month, Strand sat in a small, crowded room at the federal courthouse in Tacoma for her initial appearance on charges of marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia — a pipe.
Near her sat her husband as well as several other people caught with weed on federal land, including a 21-year-old man who was accused of having 0.1 grams during a traffic stop on a highway that skirts Mount Rainier National Park.
“I just thought it was legal now,” Jonah Hunt said. “I didn't know I was on federal land.”
Barbara Sievers, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the cases, informed the defendants their charges would not be dismissed.
“Regardless of whatever happened in the state, it's federal law, and it's federal property,” she said.
Former school teacher Melanie Cease of Seattle said a park ranger approached her one day in June at a secluded campsite in Olympic National Park.
He came to make sure her dog was on a leash, but then saw an empty pipe on the picnic table.
With his hand on his gun, she said, the ranger demanded she turn over whatever pot she had.
Cease, 48, was cited for having a “trace amount,” according to the ranger's report.
“I've never been arrested in my life, and now I'm being threatened with six months in jail and a $5,000 fine for using my medicine?” she said.
“It was my understanding the government was not going to mess with individual patients.”
Strand and Cease both pleaded not guilty, and their cases were set for trial in October.
Strand and her husband, Thomas, said they remain troubled by what they said felt like harassment from the park ranger. He repeatedly placed his hand on his gun when speaking to them, they said.
“It's a beautiful place up there,” Thomas Strand said.
“And I don't know if I'll ever go back.”