Legal Pot Next Door: First Marijuana Dispensary on the Border Eyed by Nebraskans

Medical Marijuana on display at new legal dispensary. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
New pot plants take root in grow house in Sedgwick, Colo. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Main Street, Sedgwick, Colorado. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Deuell County Sheriff Adam Hayward. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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June 25, 2013 - 6:30am

For the first time, a business opened near the Nebraska border selling marijuana legally.  Only residents of Colorado can buy, but that could change as soon as next year.  This story is part of a summer-long reporting project exploring how legalization of pot in Colorado impacts Nebraska.

A new medical marijuana dispensary opened this month in northeast Colorado. 

“This could put us on the map!” says a woman who lives in town.

“It’s going to be a problem for us,” says the sheriff on the other side of the border. 

Such is the split between two states with two very different approaches to marijuana. 

The Town

Sedgwick, Colo. has only one paved street.  The Sedgwick Inn is one full-time business succeeding in town. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Sitting in the dining room of her funky bed and breakfast in Sedgwick, Colo., Lupe Pena-Casias could not be happier to have the new marijuana dealer in town. 

This is a big deal for the town of Sedgwick, with a population of 145 and going down, according to the last U.S. Census.

Pena-Casias is the woman who wants to put her town on the map.  After she retired as a school teacher she moved back to Sedgwick County and became an innkeeper.   She renovated the 90 year-old brick and terra cotta bank building, filling it with antiques and odd household items to establish one of only two full-time businesses in town. 

Not long after she returned to town in 2010 the mayor of Sedgwick asked her to serve on the town board.  Everyone knew the town was in trouble. Some would say it’s dying.  The poverty level jumped to double-digits after the nearby sugar beet refinery shut down.

“The town had potential but we don’t have a tax base at all,” Pena-Casias said.  “We needed to find some way of generating some money and get people interested in the area.” 

The board decided to think big.

In a 2001 referendum, 54 percent of Colorado voted to make it possible for authorized users to purchase marijuana for medical use legally under state law.  Under federal law, it is still a crime.   A set of court rulings cleared the way for the dispensaries to proliferate in cities that agreed.  Communities in conservative northeast Colorado said no.  Except in Sedgwick. 

This town has not forgotten a century ago Julesburg stole the county seat from Sedgwick.  It may be why the town wears its eccentric independence as a badge of pride.   The potential for revenue in this poor town made welcoming a marijuana dispensary worthy of discussion. 

When the mayor presented research he’d done “the board really started looking at marijuana as a tax base,” Lupe-Casias said.  Describing herself as “conservative” when it came to drugs, she had misgivings about heading down this road.  Two things won her over.  First, she knew people who used and apparently benefited from medical marijuana.  Secondly, her town needed the money.

“The board was all on board, pretty much,” she said.  Sedgwick said yes to marijuana.    

Two years came and went, and no dispensary picked up on Sedgwick’s invitation.  State records showed only a couple of hundred people in the five county region had applied for the required medical marijuana card.   Those in the cannabis trade seemed to be focused on the thousands of potential customers in Colorado’s more densely populated cities and wealthy Rocky Mountain enclaves.

The Store

Brad Henson manages Sedgwick Alternative Medicine in a double-wide trailer on Main Street. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Brad Henson, a businessman and advocate for the virtues of cannabis, was looking for a location to open a new dispensary.  The medical marijuana outlet Henson operated with his partners in Dacono was one of three shut down in that city late last year.  The city council reversed its support for local sales.  Sedgwick offered a fresh start for Henson. 

He became a believer and a user when using marijuana took the edge off a serious on-the-job back injury suffered in another stage of his life.  His customers in Dacono only reinforced his commitment to the medicinal potential of cannabis, especially those who used strains designed to minimize the pain, nausea, and appetite loss associated with chemotherapy treatment.

“I know a lot of families who are dealing with someone in their family who has cancer,” Henson said.  “They have to deal with chemo and they are wasting away from that.  Until they have someone sick in their family and they can see the change, and it is immediate, then they will change.  They will say, ‘Wow, this is not a bad thing.  This is not a bad drug.  This can help.’”

According to statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, three percent of the state’s 105,886 medical marijuana patients list cancer as their reason for using.  11 percent cite severe nausea.  Severe pain is the complaint of 94 percent of users.  (Doctors may list more than one condition when prescribing cannabis.)

Housed in a double-wide trailer on Main St., Sedgwick Alternative Relief isn’t much to look at.  When it first opened the only sign had come out of the office color printer and was taped right above the wheelchair ramp.  It blew away in a June dust storm.  The reception area could be mistaken for a temporary construction site office.  Henson’s operation may be the least glitzy of the 600 or so legal dispensaries in Colorado. 

Cannabis plants sprouting in the Sedgwick Alternative Medicine grow house. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Behind locked doors are a sales area and the grow house where plants are cultivated.  Dispensaries must grow 70 percent of their own weed. 

The plants are still small.  Some are tiny, newly acquired sprouts.  After the city of Dacono forced Henson to close that location the law required the destruction of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of carefully cultivated plants.  Now, under high-intensity sodium lamps, the fast-growing pot will be ready for sale by the end of summer.

Customers pass through another locked door to make a purchase.  Three glass display cases line one side of the bare-bones retail space.  Henson calls it the Bud Bar.  Behind him a hand-lettered white board updates prices. 

One by one he unseals plastic storage containers half-full of pungent smelling marijuana buds and sets them on the counter.

“We have Maui.  More for migraines and seizures,” he explained for a visitor unfamiliar with specific products and their purported benefits.  “Romulan Cotton Candy.  More for people with chronic pain.  People who need to sleep.  Chem-420 has pretty flowers.”

In addition to the THC heavy buds from the marijuana plant, it can also be ingested using a variety of 'infused' products, including a hashish-laced cola. (Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Grabbing a set of stainless steel tongs, Henson pulls out deep blue-green clusters, or bud, harvested just before flowers appear on the top of the plant.  This is the most potent and preferred part of the plant, replacing the dried leaves rolled into an old-school joint popular in long-gone hippie days.

Placing three gumball-sized buds on an electronic scale, it evens out to just a bit more than a gram.  Henson said for a medicinal user “it would last a day to three days, depending on the person.”  This would cost about $11.

Colorado law specifies dispensaries can only sell to residents carrying the state-issued card authorized by a doctor.  At many dispensaries, doctors are available on site.  Customers in Sedgwick must find their own diagnosing physician before they arrive. 

The market in northeast Colorado, on paper, appears small.  The public health statistics updated at the end of May 2013 tally only 25 card-carrying patients in Sedgwick County.  Another 350 or so are within an hour’s drive of the new dispensary. 

“We know there are a lot of people here who use marijuana for medical,” Pena said. “And (they) are having to go to Denver, Fort Collins, Greeley to get it and that is 180 miles at least.” 

Henson is well aware there are deep suspicions about his line of work in Nebraska.  He shared a story about stopping for a sandwich at the truck stop in Big Springs, where I-76 coming out of Colorado converges with I-80 spanning Nebraska.  Another customer, noticing the Dacono Meds embroidering on his polo shirt, asked him about being in the pharmaceutical business. 

“No, I have a marijuana store,” Henson replied.  He did not expect the horrified reaction he got from the Nebraskan.  “He thought I was a demon or something,” Henson said, wide-eyed.  “It was a total culture shock.” 

Across the Border

Chappell, Neb. is a 10-minute drive to the Colorado border (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

With the heavy clang of brass against iron, Sheriff Adam Hayward unlocks a massive door securing what once was the basement jail in the Deuel County Courthouse in Nebraska.

“It smells like marijuana here,” Hayward noted, and there is no doubt he is correct.  The odor of damp vegetation hangs in the air.  The new strains of pot have a powerful musty scent that makes it easy for law enforcement to identify who is carrying large quantities. 

Opening up a military-green file cabinet he picks up a pair of the sealed evidence bags filled with items taken from out-of-staters and local residents who had their travels interrupted by a member of the sheriff’s department or the Nebraska State Patrol.    

“This is all from Colorado.”

Some of the items in the bags have store labels on products sold at legal marijuana dispensaries in Colorado. 

Police who patrol the interstate say it’s a clear trend.  Hayward and a Nebraska state trooper had pulled over three speeders suspected of carrying large quantities of pot just the day before.  The county commission is complaining about overruns in the jail’s annual budget.  Hayward told them it’s the pot cases that have kept the cells in use on a regular basis.

He had heard about plans for the first dispensary opening on the state line late last year.  “It didn’t surprise me.  I figured it was coming sooner or later,” Hayward said.  “It’s going to be a problem for us.”

Deuell County, Neb. Sheriff Adam Hayward shows a package of marijuana seized during a recent interstate traffic stop just across the Colorado-Nebraska border.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The dispensary is a 15-mile drive from Hayward’s office if you take the county road.  His bigger concern is still the interstate where cross-country travelers are stopped with pot after making the trip down to urban areas lining the eastern slope of the Rockies.

“You’re going to see a lot more people from back east or up north pick it up and turn around because you know it shortens their drive time by four hours,” Hayward said. 

Even if arrests have been made with pot products coming from dispensaries, Brad Henson said it is wrong to assume businesses are supplying out-of-state sellers or even if they had knowledge any one customer was going to leave the state with their products. 

The risk of being forced out of what promises to be a lucrative and legal business is enough to keep most dispensary owners operating in an ethical and legal manner, Hansen said.

The owners of Sedgwick Alternative Medicine claim their policy is to restrict customers to buying less marijuana or hashish a month than is allowed under Colorado state law.

“I don’t want to see a customer more than two times a day,” Henson said, citing a computerized point-of-sale tracking system that “prevents them from buying (more than) four ounces a month.  Anything above that I think is borderline re-distributing and I won’t be a part of it.” 

The Deuel County sheriff is not persuaded any dispensary can reduce the amount of re-selling and interstate trafficking law enforcement claims has become the norm. 

“He may not even know that people are coming in buying it, walking out the door and handing it off to their friend from Nebraska or Illinois,” Hayward said.  “It’s just too easy.” 

The Future

Containers of medical cannabis for sale at Sedgwick Alternative Medicine. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The next stage really concerns Nebraska police and prosecutors.  In 2012 Colorado voted to legalize recreational pot, eliminating the need for a doctor’s approval.   Attracting marijuana tourists is part of the plan.  Over the next few weeks Colorado officials will release the first draft of the rules, regulations and guidelines that will guide those who want to get into the business, their customers, and law enforcement charged with making it all work.

It is expected existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be given the first opportunity to acquire the new licenses before the end of the year.  Newcomers to the trade can apply in 2014. 

Sitting in his Sedgwick dispensary, Henson acknowledges he has a lot of people asking if he will apply for the new permit and get into the business of pot for pure pleasure.  He claims he has not yet decided.  Without having seen the state’s new rules it’s hard to tell how much hassle it will be.  “We don’t want to be one of the very first ones to apply,” Henson said.

Across the street at the Sedgwick Antique Inn, Lupe Pena-Casias has made up her mind what would be best for her struggling town. 

“It means money,” she said with a smile and then repeated, “It means money.” 

Henson claims Sedgwick has already benefited from the arrival of legal pot.  The town only collected about $4,000 in sales tax revenue for the entire year or about $83 a week. “Within a week, we had already collected a quarter of what the town made all last year,” Henson estimated. 

That was before Sedgwick Alternative Medicine started advertising.  It had only made the front page of the biggest newspaper in the county that day.

It was an early hint the prediction of Lupe Pena-Casias might come to pass. 

“It’s going to put us on the map!”

(Read our earlier NET News story: Colorado's medical marijuana a headache for Nebraska law enforcement)



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