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Guest Column: The Red-Headed Exception

The authorities in Hudspeth County have realized what the rest of us have known for years: Before you start investigating the funny smell emanating from his tour bus, remember that he's Willie Nelson. The usual rules don't apply.

By Joe Nick Patoski
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What is it about Willie Nelson, weed and the law?

It’s been a question worth asking since at least 1971, when Willie brought together rednecks and hippies at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin with his unique style of country music and his open attitude about marijuana. His eldest daughter, Lana, and his former wife Connie said pot helped tamp down the rage; he had been a mean drunk when alcohol was his drug of choice.

Now 77, Willie is perhaps America’s best-known marijuana smoker. He is co-chairman of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has been a High Times cover boy and famously smoked a joint on the roof of the White House when Jimmy Carter was president. His disciples include the actor Woody Harrelson and the country crooner Ray Price, his former employer — each known to have enjoyed a puff now and then. He is the inspiration for Toby Keith’s hit song “(I’ll Never Smoke) Weed With Willie (Again),” which testifies to the quality of his stash.

All that is part of Willie's folklore. It’s when he tangles with law enforcement that things get interesting, though not necessarily all that punitive.

Take his most recent bust. On Nov. 26, Border Patrol agents at the eastbound Interstate 10 immigration checkpoint just west of the far West Texas town of Sierra Blanca arrested Willie inside his touring bus, Honeysuckle Rose, after drug-sniffing dogs and the agents’ own olfactory acumen gave them reason to search. Six and one-quarter ounces of high-grade, domestically grown marijuana were discovered. Nelson was arraigned on a misdemeanor charge, posted a $2,500 bond and went on his way. Afterward, he announced he was forming a new political party, the Teapot Party.

Last week, C. R. "Kit" Bramblett, the Hudspeth County attorney, announced that Willie was going to have his day in court, telling The Big Bend Sentinel, “I’m gonna let him plead, pay a small fine and he’s gotta sing ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ with his guitar in the courtroom.” Bramblett added, “I ain’t gonna be mean to Willie Nelson.”

This week, Becky Dean-Walker, the Hudspeth County judge, said Bramblett was joking; Willie could dispense with the matter by mail. Misdemeanor possession cases from the Sierra Blanca checkpoint are typically settled with a plea, a $100 fine and $278 in court costs.

We’ve heard this song before. In the wee hours of May 10, 1994, two highway patrolmen found Willie sleeping in the back seat of his Mercedes, parked on the southbound frontage road of Interstate 35 south of Waco, near the town of Hewitt. He had been involved in a late-night poker game in nearby Hillsboro and got tired driving back to Austin, so he pulled over to take a nap. After he admitted to the highway patrolmen that the hand-rolled cigarette in the ashtray contained marijuana and belonged to him, as did a baggie stashed under the driver’s seat, he was arrested. He lawyered up and canceled an appearance at the Grammys so he could be in court. Before his trial, one of the patrolmen who arrested him was fired on an unrelated charge of sexual harassment and left town. Willie was found not guilty by a McLennan County judge.

On Sept. 18, 2006, Willie, his bus drivers, his road manager and his older sister Bobbi were arrested at a commercial vehicle inspection station on westbound Interstate 10 in St. Martin Parish, La., while traveling from Alabama to Austin to attend the funeral of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. Authorities found one and a half pounds of marijuana and one-eighth of a pound of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Willie said the dope belonged to him and was for his personal use. Seven months later, he canceled concert dates and had his bus drivers take him from California back to Louisiana for his court date. He was fined $1,024 and given six months’ probation.

Willie is not the voracious viper he once was. A collapsed lung persuaded him to switch from joints to a carbon-free vapor delivery system three years ago. But he does not lack for the substance when he wants it. Every grower worth his product wants the stamp of approval from him, since “Willie weed” is considered the gold standard by which all marijuana is judged.

By making a joke of possession and enforcement laws, Willie has done more to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of marijuana prohibition than a hundred lobbyists or a thousand politicians could ever do.

Is he bulletproof? Above the law? Too hot to handle or incarcerate? No. But he is Willie Nelson. If you’re a law enforcement person, it pays to know that before you start investigating that funny smell emanating from Honeysuckle Rose.

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, which was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2008.

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