By Steve Bloom
If you ever happen to be driving through Sierra Blanca -- the dusty West Texas town (population: 553) just 30 miles from the Mexican border -- leave your drugs at home.
Since 2010, a slew of entertainers, including Willie Nelson,Snoop Dogg, Fiona Apple and actor Armie Hammer (The Social Network), have all been busted at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint there, most often for marijuana. Last Wednesday, rapper Nelly's tour bus was stopped and searched, turning up 10 pounds of pot, 36 small bags of heroin and a gun on board. His bodyguard Brian Keith Jones took the rap, but has since pleaded not guilty.
Sierra Blanca, which roughly translates to "white mountain," is on highway I-10 about 85 miles east of El Paso. The checkpoint, whose main focus is to catch illegal aliens sneaking across the border, is on the eastbound side of the highway and all cars and trucks are stopped.
What can a driver expect? After a license plate scan, "It all depends," agent Abel Meza explained to the El Paso Times in February. "You have five to 10 seconds to determine if someone has something suspicious about them or their vehicle."
Heat-sensitive cameras and radiation detectors at the inspection stop seek signs of weapons, but it's the dogs that will find any drugs. Naturally, in the case of rock stars, a luxury tour bus screams probable cause and it usually doesn't take long before a canine is brought onto the coach to sniff out a stash.
"If there is marijuana in the middle of a can of jalapeños, the dog will smell both of them but ignore the jalapeños," Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks has said. "These dogs are raised to work. They are excited to work. They never sit still; they can't wait to find their next bust so they can be rewarded for it." On average, six drug cases a day are referred to the Sheriff's Office. (In yet another odd celebrity twist to this story, actor Steven Seagal stops by the checkpoint several times a month to help out: he's a reserve sheriff deputy in Sierra Blanca.)
Now, with the increase in high-profile arrests and well aware of Sierra Blanca's harsh rep, tour bus drivers are starting to warn their passengers, which often include crew members, to "abandon all illicit items if they do happen to sneak some aboard" before arriving at the checkpoint. The only other option is to avoid it altogether, which for a band traveling from, say, Phoenix to Dallas, could add another two hours to the trip using the state highway route.
Say you're one of the unfortunates -- as Nelson was in Nov. 2010, when he got arrested for marijuana possession -- what happens next? In the country singer's case, the original report stated he had a stash on his bus that weighed in at more than a quarter pound, which is a felony. The amount was later reduced to less than a quarter pound, a misdemeanor. The local prosecutor then suggested if Nelson came and sang a song in court they'd drop the charges altogether. Although it's been widely reported that Nelson paid a $500 fine, he told this reporter that he was actually charged $3,000 to settle the marijuana matter.
Justice would appear to be a bit of a joke in West Texas. After Fiona Apple complained publicly about how her Sept. 19 arrest for hash was handled, Huspeth County Sheriff's Office rep Rusty Fleming fired back, "Have you ever heard of Snoop, Willie or Armand Hammer? Maybe if you would read something besides your own press releases, you would have known BEFORE you got here that if you come to Texas with dope, the cops will take your DOPE away and put YOU in jail… My last piece of advice is simple: Just shut up and sing."
Or, better yet, follow Nelson's advice: "Try going through Colorado. Skip that part of the country. I would if I was a picker traveling right now."