After a surge, Nebraska marijuana arrests level off

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December 15, 2017 - 12:00pm

Law enforcement agencies across Nebraska arrested fewer people for selling marijuana in 2016.


Nebraska courts have seen marijuana cases rise and fall over the past five years. 

The Nebraska State Patrol reports a decline in the number of arrests for marijuana possession. (Charts by NET News)


Data supplied by the Nebraska Crime Commission showed a 13 percent drop from 2015, when there were a record number of arrests. The numbers include every law enforcement agency in the state, except Omaha.

The number of arrests for possession of marijuana rose slightly during the same period, with a 3.2 percent increase. It was the fourth straight year arrests for possession increased since neighboring Colorado became the first of 27 states to legalize medical and recreational marijuana.

Arrests by Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) field officers dropped in both categories. In 2016 troopers made 106 pot sales arrests, down 26 percent from the previous year. Arrests and citations for possession fell 10 percent in 2016. Year to date information compiled by the patrol indicates 2017 arrests will either hold steady or drop slightly.

NSP Field Services is responsible for road patrol. The arrest figures are separate from officers assigned to long-term illegal drug investigations. Charges resulting from that work often end with arrests carried out and recorded by other local or federal law enforcement agencies.

Marijuana possession cases filed in county courthouses along the Interstate 80 corridor in Nebraska also rose to record levels. In 2016 county and district courts had 5,726 cases filed for violations of state statutes specifying marijuana. The corridor counties have been of special interest because of a perceived “pipeline” effect from marijuana leaving Colorado and passing through Nebraska to other eastern destinations.

The court data was supplied, at the request of NET News, by the judicial branch of Nebraska, the administrators of the state’s court system. A statistician for the court system collected information from cases filed within the 16 counties straddling I-80 from 2012 to 2016.

The vast majority of possession cases are non-criminal citations for people carrying an ounce or less. Those violations require only payment of a fine, without jail time.

Information about felony marijuana sales are more difficult to separate out from data on file with the courts.  Those marijuana offenses violate the same state law as those involving the sale of street drugs including meth, cocaine, and opioids. The court records don’t differentiate by substance.

Court cases in Nebraska involving all classes of controlled substances jumped in 2014, dropped the following year and rose again in 2016, when 5,124 drug sale cases were filed in counties along I-80.

The data collected from county courthouses suggests a sustained “downstream” effect from legal marijuana sold in Colorado and other western states. For some, it’s still far less an impact than had been predicted at the start of the commercial cannabis revolution.

“It’s not been a headache for us,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said. “It never hit us that way.”

The search of court records in 2016 turned up 620 possession cases brought to court in Sarpy County. Cases filed in 2017 have already exceeded that number, but it’s still a fraction of the total number of criminal cases handled by the judges and prosecutors at the Sarpy County courthouse.

“When they come into the eastern part of the state, they don’t stand out as much,” according to Polikov. “They still might be arrested and processed but it’s not a burden. It’s just another case.”

It is a much different set of circumstances in Deuel County, Nebraska. A tiny county with under 2,000 residents is the crossroads joining I-80 as it crosses Nebraska and I-76 angling southward to Denver, Colorado. The cases are fewer but the impact of marijuana arrests is greater.

“It’s been consistent over the last three years,” County Attorney Joel Jay said. In his first year as prosecutor, and working alone, he juggled 118 marijuana possession cases and another 50 involving the sale of illegal drugs in addition to the rest of the criminal docket.

In his small jurisdiction “the majority of the criminal cases that come through the court system involve some type of marijuana or marijuana product.”

Most of those cases are not nearby residents but drivers and passengers stopped by the county sheriff for routine traffic stops as they head east on the interstate out of Colorado.

“When someone is speeding down the interstate they are stopped and there is an odor of marijuana and there is some small amount because they are traveling through often from Colorado,” Jay explained.

While arresting fewer people on marijuana charges in recent years, the Nebraska State Patrol still collects some of the largest quantities during individual stops. The type of people getting arrested has changed since the arrival of legal weed in some states, according to investigators and a review of court records.

“That’s definitely been a whole paradigm shift that we have watched occur with the whole Colorado legalization thing,” said Lt. Jason Scott of the NSP Investigative Services Drug Unit.

“It used to be that you had to know someone in a drug smuggling network where now anybody and everyone can go get their own marijuana in Colorado and be their dealer,” Scott said.

In a recent arrest publicized by NSP, the trooper patrolling the interstate near Gothenburg clocked a Nissan Altima traveling at 103 miles an hour, heading east. Once stopped, the trooper picked up a strong scent of marijuana.  Searching the car, he reportedly found 38 pounds of edible marijuana products, three pounds of hash oil butter, and another 31 grams of marijuana. Three men from Connecticut inside the Nissan face a variety of charges.



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