Feds Revoke Airport Security Clearance For Southern California Marijuana Business Owner

Photo Credit: Will Lester

Federal officials have revoked a Southern California man’s airport fast-track security clearance for one reason: he owns a licensed marijuana business.

“They’re treating me like a criminal,” said Aaron Herzberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney who owns several state-sanctioned marijuana ventures.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they’re simply upholding their policy of “zero tolerance for drugs.”

The revocation is the latest example of the growing conflict between state and federal marijuana laws.

California and eight other states have legalized recreational marijuana, while 29 states permit medical marijuana. But the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug on par with heroin. That means cannabis consumers in pot-legal states can lose their jobs, insurance, gun rights and more because of federal pressure.

Those challenges are familiar to Herzberg, an Irvine resident who has shared ownership of two Santa Ana dispensaries since 2015 and is involved in other industry projects through his company, CalCann Holdings. But while the federal status of cannabis has prompted some hurdles for his business ventures, such as banking and tax limitations, he said the revocation of his security clearance is the first time federal sanctions have hit him personally.

Herzberg flies about 15 times a year for work and pleasure. So a few years ago, he joined the several million Americans who are in Department of Homeland Security’s Global Entry Program.

The program lets “low-risk” international travelers use kiosks that scan their passports and fingerprints to reenter the United States, skipping the traditional face-to-face review with a customs agent. Herzberg’s clearance included membership in the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program, which lets domestic travelers skip often-long TSA screening lines.

Federal agents can deny or revoke membership in the program if background checks show applicants have past criminal convictions or pending investigations, if they lied on their application forms, or if they can’t for any reason satisfy customs agents of their “low risk status.” Some 3 to 5 percent of applications are rejected for one of these reasons, according to media reports.

Herzberg was going to board a flight Monday at Los Angeles International Airport, to attend a cannabis industry conference in Sacramento. When he went to check in he was given a written notice that Customs and Border Protection had revoked his clearance.

“We have a very strict ‘Zero tolerance for drugs’ policy and he is a partner with CalCan (sic) holdings which owns medical Marijuana businesses,” the letter reads.

Jaime Ruiz, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection’s L.A. office, said he couldn’t comment on an individual case because of privacy concerns. But he pointed to the federal status of marijuana and said his agency has discretion to revoke membership for anyone who’s involved with drugs of any kind.

“It’s not a decision that we take lightly because we know it impacts people’s lives,” Ruiz said.

It took Herzberg an extra 20 minutes to get through airport security lines at LAX on Monday. And he’s out the $100 it costs to join the Global Entry Program. But he said his biggest complaint is the ideology behind the revocation.

“I really don’t think they have a basis for their decision,” he said.

Herzberg, who has no criminal background, said he never brings cannabis with him when he travels. And all marijuana sold by his shops must be bought from seed to sale to prevent any diversion.

“I have absolutely no risk factors other than owning a marijuana business,” he said.

California has now issued temporary licenses to more than 4,600 marijuana businesses. Herzberg said he hasn’t heard of anyone else in the industry getting hit with this sanction.

It’s also a first for John Manley, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles who has worked with clients who’ve had Global Entry applications denied or revoked. Manley said he’s never heard of someone being rejected because of his or her profession.

“They’re really taking a position against his business, not against him personally,” Manley said.

Ruiz stopped short of making a blanket statement that anyone working in the cannabis industry can’t be in the Global Entry program. He said it’s always on a “case by case” basis.

Herzberg said he intends to ask Customs and Border Protection to reconsider the decision.

But Manley said Americans don’t have grounds to sue over denials because federal authorities aren’t denying entry into the United States or some other right.

“The program is a privilege,” Ruiz said. “It’s not an entitlement.”