The Laredo Marijuana Racket

The scam was elegant in its simplicity. It rested on the complicity of federal judges who ignored the Constitution, while prosecutors and defense lawyers conspired to force people who were busted taking small amounts of marijuana across the border at Laredo to plead guilty to a legal fiction – violation of The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Small time smugglers who were caught at Customs in Laredo in the 1960s were routinely charged with smuggling, possession and violation of the Tax Act. Smuggling and possession carried mandatory five year minimum sentences without the possibility of parole, but there was no minimum sentence or parole restriction attached to the tax charge, which rested on the assumption that upon crossing the border a rational person would present himself to a Customs officer, state that he was in possession of marijuana and ask to pay the tax. You’d be ratting on yourself, that was obvious, but the only advice local lawyers offered was make the deal. Most violators paused long enough to do the math and agreed, even though it sounded fishy.

Parole-eligible sentences were the carrot. Long sentences were the stick. There were dozens, sometimes more than 100 busts for marijuana every week at the Laredo crossing, and they all had to be processed smoothly through the legal system. Those who didn’t take the deal often received draconian sentences.

Parole was abolished in the federal prison system in 1987. That would have been curtains for the Laredo marijuana racket in any case, but it was squashed long before. Read about it in A Note on My Sources, one of the true crime stories in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.