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National Parks Week on 4/20: Everything You Need to Know About Weed Laws on Public Land

Can you smoke weed in National Parks or public lands? While the legal status of cannabis might be different from state to state, the federal policy on it is the same across the board.

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For many people, cannabis and time in nature go hand in hand. Most of the fishermen, hikers, bikers, campers, skiers, and boarders I surround myself with always seem to have a joint or bowl in rotation. It’s a common thing to see when you’re recreating on trails, ski slopes, or bodies of water — especially in states where cannabis is legal.

But the rules around using cannabis on public land are very strict. In fact, while the distinction between many of the agencies and bureaus that manage its different forms gets convoluted and complex, collectively the policy on cannabis is simple: Don’t bring it.

And none of the three- and four-letter agencies mess around when it comes to enforcing the rule.

So ahead of National Parks Week, which kicks off on April 20 this year, GearJunkie connected with the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service to dig into this policy on cannabis use and the consequences of getting caught breaking the rules.

Can You Smoke Weed in National Parks or Public Lands?

Exploring a NPS National parks on a beautiful hike; (Photo/Karla Rivera, NPS.gov)
Exploring an NPS National Park on a beautiful hike; (photo/Karla Rivera, NPS.gov)

The U.S. has 400 national parks, 560 national wildlife refuges, and nearly 250 million acres of other public lands under the Department of the Interior (DOI). There are a lot of different types of public land in the U.S. They all have different rules and regulations that govern how people can travel, camp, access, and generally use them. But when it comes to cannabis the policy is universal, regardless of what state you’re in.

The NPS manages the national parks. The USDA Forest Service manages National Forest Service (NFS) lands like national recreation areas. And, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages all other public lands under the DOI. That includes national conservation areas, wilderness areas, and national recreation areas.

Temple,Of,The,Moon,,Capital,Reef,National,Park
Star-gazing at the Temple of the Moon in Capital Reef National Park, where REI now offers a prearranged trip; (photo/Shutterstock)

“State laws, which allow recreational cannabis use, have no bearing on Federal law, which continues to identify cannabis as a Schedule I illegal drug, and prohibit its use and possession,” the USDA Forest Service told GearJunkie.

In other words, cannabis is illegal to possess, sell, cultivate, or use on public land — regardless of state law.

“That includes but is not limited to all federally managed lands including National Forests, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks/Monuments, etc. AND their road systems,” said the USDA Forest Service.

Most ski areas exist on some form of public land; as do most dispersed camping areas, many designated camping areas, climbing areas, biking and hiking trail networks, reservoirs, and rivers.

That hardline rule also applies no matter how you’re consuming cannabis — smoking, vaping, or eating edibles. If it contains THC, it’s illegal on property managed by any federal agency.

And, NPS Law Enforcement Rangers, U.S. Park Rangers, and BLM and USDA Officers can all write tickets and arrest people just like regular police.

Weed on Public Lands: The Consequences

(Photo/Araix Rand via Flickr Creative Commons)

What happens if you’re caught with weed on public land? The USDA Forest Service said it depends heavily on the circumstances and nature of the charge.

“The penalty/fine for cannabis on federal lands varies depending on many factors including the quantity on the individual and/or the number of prior offences [sic],” it said. “The outcome will also depend on if it was deemed possession, paraphernalia, distribution, sale or cultivation.”

According to the USFS website, a federal cannabis charge requires a mandatory appearance before a federal judge. And, if convicted, it could result in months to years in prison and/or a very heavy fine.

Federal charges for possession of a controlled substance then go on your record. That comes up on background checks and has to be reported on many job applications and some housing applications.

It could also affect other rights. You might not be able to get federal financial aid. You won’t be able to obtain a firearm legally. And certain federal benefits won’t be available to you.

Possessing a ‘Controlled Substance’ on Public Land

National Park Service NPS ranger badge
(Photo/NPS)

Still, someone would have to be pretty obvious about using or possessing cannabis to get caught on public land … right?

Think again. People are charged often enough in these cases that defense lawyers like Alex Freeburg make their living off of them. Freeburg specializes in helping people charged with cannabis crimes in National Parks.

According to Freeburg’s website, people often get caught as a result of getting pulled over while driving on public land. But non-vehicle cases happen as well.

There are even plenty of instances where full cannabis grow operations have been busted on public land, leaving behind serious pollution, contamination, and litter. California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has its own team of special ops officers specifically trained to hunt down and raid these kinds of illegal grow ops.

Penalties are circumstantially dependent. But no matter what, if you find yourself on the wrong side of a cannabis charge on public lands, you might need to enlist a lawyer like Freeburg.

National Park Week Starts on Saturday, April 20

(Photo/Flickr Creative Commons)

National Parks Week is a 9-day celebration of our parks. It aligns with Earth Day and includes a free access day where fees are waived at all 400 National Parks across the country. Throughout the week, events are held and people are generally encouraged to enjoy quality time outside.

For 2024, National Parks Week starts the weekend before Earth Day on Saturday, April 20, which is internationally recognized as “marijuana day.” It’s a holiday where people protest the drug’s prohibition and celebrate its benefits … by using it.

No doubt, it’s a coincidence. And it’s one that won’t escape many park guests who take advantage of waived entry fees on April 20, 2024. But the temptation to combine the two celebrations could land someone in front of a federal judge.

The Reality: Can You Smoke Weed in a National Park?

yosemite climbing permits
Fixed anchors on El Capitan — and in all national parks — are under threat from proposed federal policies; (photo/Shutterstock)

So, can you smoke weed in a national park?

The short answer is, no. Using cannabis on public land of any kind, in any state, in any form is still a federal crime and you can get busted for it. That can then have lasting consequences. Be mindful of the laws as you celebrate the beauty of America’s public lands on a day — and week — when entry is absolutely free.

Get out to a National Park on 4/20 and cash in on the free access day. Celebrate National Parks Week all week long if you can. Just do your best to stay out of trouble while you’re out there. Head for the hills, but maybe leave the trees at home.

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