Colorado's medical marijuana is headache for Nebraska law enforcement

"Audrey" a medical marijuana user in Nebraska. (Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)
(Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
(Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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March 6, 2013 - 6:30am

High-grade medical marijuana, legal in Colorado, is “flooding” Nebraska where the drug remains illegal, according to law enforcement agencies.  The impact is being seen, primarily in western counties, in the amount of staff time spent by narcotic enforcement officers, court cases, and on the market for marijuana across the state. 

“Marijuana out of Colorado is having a local impact,” Sgt. Dana Korell of the Nebraska State Patrol told NET News.  “It is flooding, just flooding the market place.  It’s everywhere.”  Korell coordinates the Western Intelligence Narcotics Group (WING) a law enforcement task force coordinating drug investigations with 11 panhandle counties. 

A typical ad for a Colorado medical marijuana dispensery.  (Source:  Westworld)

Police from a number of law enforcement agencies in Nebraska report their investigators have been working extra hours and department resources are being diverted away from more serious drug problems, including methamphetamine.

“It’s just running us ragged,” Korell said.   “What do we do? We have limited manpower. We’ve got limited financial resources to make buys.  What do we want to focus on?  It’s still a felony.  It’s still a felony in Nebraska to possess more than a pound.”   

Korell asked the WING Task Force to put the issue of enforcement priorities on the agenda of this month’s meeting. 

15 states, including Nebraska, have decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.  A first offense of less than an ounce is a civil infraction punishable with up to a $300 fine instead of jail.  Possession of substantial quantities, as is becoming frequent when the pot is being intercepted from Colorado, takes it beyond the level of personal use, and likely to share or sell.  “Intent to deliver” is a felony in Nebraska.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) stated in a recent report “because criminals appear to be exploiting medical marijuana laws… Colorado is increasingly becoming a source area for indoor grown high-potency marijuana.”

Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000 when a ballot initiative was approved by 53 percent of voters.  Neighboring states did not see a significant shift in the availability of pot and hashish until 2009.  In March of that year U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced federal law enforcement would not raid medical marijuana dispensaries opening in Colorado, California and Washington. Four months later the Colorado Board of Health broadened the definition of who could be a legal “caregiver” issuing the patient cards needed to obtain marijuana. 

Within weeks the number of applications from patients and the number of legal dispensaries skyrocketed.   As of January, 108,656 Colorado residents possess the card that allows them to obtain medical marijuana, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. 

Investigators specializing in drug investigations say they have seen a definite change in the marijuana market in Nebraska over the past five years.  

Nebraska ditchweed, uncultivated marijuana, is a common sight in rural areas.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“In the beginning of (my) career you saw a lot more of ditch weed, or home grown weed,” Sheriff John Jenson of Cheyenne County, Nebraska said.  He claims legalizing marijuana in Colorado changed local drug trafficking in a way not seen in his 17 years of law enforcement.

“Now you have dispensaries, you have ‘grow houses’ in our neighboring states that are growing a much better product,” Jenson said.  “Now we’re getting the high-grade marijuana” coming across the border. 

Who sells marijuana at the local level has also changed since it became more readily available, according to Sheriff Mark Overman in Scotts Bluff County, Neb.   

“The real traffickers used to be the hard core criminals,” Overman said. “Now you’re finding more young people that are saying ‘I collected some money from everyone. Let’s go over and buy some pot.’  It’s like making a beer run.”

Robert Taylor of Mitchell was found guilty of attempting to re-sell Colorado medical marijuana in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy Scotts Bluff County Sheriff's Department)

Last summer David Dillion of Gering and Robert Taylor of Mitchell were arrested after police, using a hidden GPS tracking device, tracked the suspect’s car to and from a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary.  Undercover officers had learned the pair intended to buy it in Colorado and resell it for a profit.  They later admitted to purchasing a pound for more than $3000.  Investigators were able to identify the group of buyers through text messages on Taylor’s cell phone.  Both men were found guilty.

(Read the police report filed on this case)

Nebraska law enforcement officers specializing in drug enforcement say they work closely with Colorado authorities, sometimes tracking cross-border transactions in a market that sometimes overlaps between the legal and illegal sources. 

Police and sheriff departments in western Nebraska and the border counties, with lots of access to Colorado and fewer officers, have been most vocal about the effects of legalization.  The impact is seen 500 miles away in Omaha as well.

Sgt. Dave Bianchi with the Omaha Police Narcotics Unit was quoted in a federal report about the illegal market for medical marijuana.  He said people arrested by his officers claim “getting a medical permit is extremely easy.” 

Evidence collected in a number of cases revealed a significant amount of “brand name” product that originated at the stores.

Paul Schaub, the county prosecutor in Cheyenne County, says the shift in the drug market has put local law enforcement “in a position we have never been in before.”  Schaub also serves as interim county attorney in neighboring Deuel County. Interstate 80, historically a pipeline for cross-country trafficking of drugs runs through the middle of both Cheyenne and Deuel and both counties share southern borders with Colorado. 

A number of recent stops on the interstate collected marijuana packages seized by police Schaub claims are “obvious to the trained eye and to anyone” from a legal dispensary “because of the labeling and because of the number of packages.  We didn’t see that before.”

Schaub says the products being seized are “not marijuana alone but the cookies, the brownies” and a variety of other products being legally manufactured in Colorado for the medical marijuana dispensaries. 

These are a new generation of cannabis foods infused with the resin or herbal essence of the plant.  Customers like them as an alternate delivery means of the drug, without having to smoke.

Ranging from chocolates to tea for brewing, these have become popular for people who don’t wish to inhale smoke to derive the benefits of the THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary intoxicant in marijuana and hashish.  Many of these products carry the brand name labeling identifying which dispensary sold it.

The court dockets in Nebraska provide a number of recent examples.  In February a Nebraska State Trooper stopped a car driven by 24-year-old Adam Tuttle of Broomfield, Colorado as he started heading east on I-80 from the I-76 interchange leading out of Colorado.  His passenger was Lisa Goldmann of Westminster, Colorado. The affidavit filed by the trooper states he could smell marijuana in the car and had other reasons to conduct a search.  In addition to three and a half pounds of pot found in various places in the car, the affidavit filed with the court states Tuttle was carrying “numerous documents, invoices, receipts, payments, product information and medical marijuana transportation manifests for a medical marijuana supplier from the Denver area.” 

(Read the police report filed on this case)

Tuttle and Goldman, charged with intent to deliver marijuana, both pled not guilty.  The case has not yet gone to trial. 

In another case, included in a federal government listing of cases directly tied to dispensaries, a Nebraska State Patrol officer stopped a vehicle traveling from Denver to Sioux City, Iowa in January 2012.  After the officer discovered 1.75 pounds of pot the driver volunteered he had used a valid medical marijuana card to visit seven legal providers during a weeklong stay.

Medical marijuana dispensaries develop plant varieties specific to the condition being treated.  (Source:  Westworld)

Higher quality pot has become a significant selling point, and point of pride, for growers supplying the medical marijuana dispensaries.  It has also made marijuana unquestionably the most popular street drug, according to a recent federal study. 

Nationally, research has shown a substantial jump in the levels of THC in marijuana available on the street, and thus its potency.  A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency analysis done of pot seized in drug raids as part of the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project found an average THC content of between a half and 1 percent. In 2011, that figure was nearing 12 percent, with some samples containing THC levels above 20 and 30 percent.

The primary source of the high quality marijuana found in Nebraska is the indoor growing operations that either supply or benefit from the cultivation methods used by medical marijuana dispensaries. 

According to Sgt. Bianchi, investigations following pot arrests by his unit indicate “much of this marijuana appears to have been ‘legally’ grown in Colorado by growers following the laws of Colorado.”

One measure of the amount of illegal marijuana production underway in Colorado comes from the increase in the number of cannabis plants seized during police raids from indoor grow sites.  Figures compiled by the DOJ’s National Drug Intelligence Center showed from 2009 to 2010 there was a 622 percent increase in the number of plants destroyed by law enforcement in Colorado.

The Intelligence Center’s analysis of the illegal drug market in the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which includes Nebraska, found  “demand for high-potency marijuana has increased during the last 3 years, fueling both increased indoor hydroponic grows and importation from California and Colorado.”

Even with large amounts of product on the market prices remain high.  A public website which updates the purchase price of marijuana based on consumer reports (and considered a reliable measure by law enforcement) reported at the beginning of March the average price of an ounce of high-quality marijuana topped $360 an ounce.  The same amount of low quality pot, the type that would have been commonly available five or ten years ago, sells for less than $125.

Intent to sell marijuana remains a felony in the State of Nebraska.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The supply and the demand for high quality marijuana in Nebraska is not expected to drop anytime in the foreseeable future according to law enforcement officials. 

Colorado voters just approved legalized recreational pot.  Last month, a task force appointed by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recommended allowing marijuana tourism.  If approved, people from outside the state could shop in the new retail marijuana stores scheduled to open early next year. No prescription would be required.

However Hickenlooper, who opposed legalizing recreational use, also reminded supporters implementing legal, non-medical use was far from a reality.  "Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug," he told reporters, "so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."



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