As marijuana arrests, availability increase Nebraska policy makers mostly quiet

Marijuana Crossroads: An NET News reporting project
A Nebraskan with her Colorado marijuana. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
The Colorado Border. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Material seized by the Cheyenne County, Neb. marijuana arrest. (Police Photo)
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November 20, 2013 - 6:30am

Talk of the changing laws and attitudes concerning marijuana is everywhere.  Everywhere except Nebraska, apparently. 

As the state deals with an increasing number of felony arrests, greater availability of high-potency pot, and changing attitudes towards what federal drug enforcement officials call “the most widely available and commonly abused illicit drug in the United States,” policy makers tell NET News they have little interest in exploring what it will mean to Nebraska, where marijuana remains illegal. 

Ally Dering-Anderson of the University of Nebraska Medical Center School of Pharmacy (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Discussion of the issue is “sorely lacking” according to Ally Dering-Anderson, a pharmacy professor teaching at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  Dering-Anderson has been promoting a public discussion of marijuana policy, regardless of whether people support or oppose total legalization.    “There is virtually no discussion at a public policy level and we probably should because it is clear it is at our back door,” Dering-Anderson said.

NET News found no state official planning for or raising questions about the potential impact on Nebraska taxpayers or local law enforcement. 

  • Staff for the Nebraska State Legislature Judiciary Committee, which focuses on law enforcement issues, reported “there has been no discussion about the impact of Colorado's legalization on our state.” 
  • Staff responsible for anti-drug programs at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services conceded there is no review underway of substance abuse programs for adults or youth who likely will have access to higher quantities of more potent marijuana.
  • Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning asked if there has been a significant impact on the legal system from marijuana cases replied, “I haven’t seen it.” 
  • Major Russ Stanczyk, the commander of troopers doing road monitoring at the Nebraska State Patrol told NET News “numbers wouldn’t reflect some huge change statewide,” while acknowledging, “it may be impactful on bordering areas.”

Since 2007, when the legal marijuana industry expanded in Colorado, neighboring states, including Nebraska witnessed a significant upward trend in the number of felony marijuana trafficking cases.

Crime statistics collected and analyzed by NET News appear to contradict statements by Nebraska’s leading law enforcement officials claiming increased violations of the state’s marijuana laws are limited to “localized increases” in counties along the western border. 

Nebraska Crime Commission statistics analyzed by NET News reflect a significant increase in arrests in marijuana distribution since 2007.  (Chart by Michelle Kosmicki, NET)

Data provided by the Nebraska State Crime Commission showed over the past five years there has been a 40 percent increase statewide in the number of felony charges filed for selling and transporting marijuana in the state. Arrest numbers vary county by county, but increases in sales and possession arrests were as likely to be seen in eastern counties as those along the Colorado border.  Statewide, the number of cases of simple possession of marijuana remained comparatively stable during the same period.

The increase in trafficking cases occurred during the same period of time the legalized medical marijuana industry has gone into high gear in Colorado, Washington and California.  According to a recent study by business consultants at ArcView Research, the U.S. national legal marijuana market value has been assessed at $1.44 billion. By next year it is projected to grow to $2.34 billion, a 64 percent increase. 

Drug enforcement officials believe the legal market has a direct effect on the supply of pot in states where it remains illegal. The 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment, released by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this week, stated, “marijuana availability appeared to be increasing throughout the United States, most likely because of increased domestic cannabis cultivation and sustained high levels of production in Mexico.”

Deuel County, Neb. Sheriff Adam Hayward searches a car after finding marijuana during a traffic stop.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Local law enforcement in Nebraska began noticing the trend months ago. Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman told NET News in March the supply in his jurisdiction has “slowly grown over the last dozen years.” 

In 2014 Overman believes  “you’re going to see more. I think it’s just going to be worse now that they’ve pretty much legalized it.  Legalized private use.  Legalized private possession.” 

Last year Colorado voters approved retail sales of recreational marijuana to both residents and visitors to the state.  The first stores are expected to open within weeks.

Sheriff Overman’s concern is widely held among law enforcement along the Interstate 80 corridor.  An NET News survey of county attorneys and sheriffs along I-80 revealed 82 percent felt legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado impacted the illegal drug trade in their region. (Read our research findings.)

“Mexico is a source country.  Colorado is a source state for an illegal drug coming into Nebraska,” Overman said. 

Colorado’s attorney general, John Suthers, acknowledges marijuana legally grown and illegally sold out of state, referred to as “diversion” in law enforcement, remains a significant issue.  “The folks in Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, and Wyoming, they didn’t vote for this, but their supply is being increased by what’s going on in Colorado,” Suthers said.

Suthers said in 2012 there were record seizures of Colorado-packaged marijuana:  72-hundred pounds picked up in 37 states, including Nebraska. 

As arrest numbers rise, state policy makers and top law enforcement officials have had no public discussion about how, or if, to respond.  Most officials interviewed for this report said they preferred to take a “wait and see” approach.

So far any mention of pot policy by Nebraska state officials has focused on their opposition to legalizing medical marijuana.  There has been no discussion of a variety of other issues on the horizon.

Dering-Anderson argues everything from the impact on taxpayers to the messages Nebraska youth are getting from neighboring states is worthy of public discussion.

“We don’t have any basis on which to make those decisions because we haven’t talked about it,” Dering-Anderson said.   “I think that’s problematic.”

State Senator Ken Schilz represents District 47, covering much of the Nebraska panhandle. “Did we have any discussions with the Legislature about this?  No,” Schilz said. 

Marijuana plants being cultivated by a legal Colorado grower.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Schilz just started thinking about the side effects of living on the Colorado border.  To date the only mention of the issue came from constituents rather than lawmakers back in Lincoln.  He agreed a “wait and see” approach may be best.

“I don’t think that we should just step out and think that things are going to go to hell in a hand basket just because this has happened across the border.”

He quickly added some issues may need the attention of state government.

“If we just deny the fact that this is going on over there, and deny the fact that it could have an adverse impact over here, then we’re not doing ourselves any justice at all,” Schilz said.

Attorney General Bruning said there is not enough evidence to warrant discussion of providing additional financial support to county attorneys or sheriffs facing potential increases in pot cases.

“I haven’t heard any local law enforcement cry uncle about the resources it’s taking for large shipments of marijuana that come through the I-80 corridor,” Bruning said.

With Colorado likely to promote ‘pot-tourism’ in 2014 Bruning dismissed the idea of launching any kind of public information campaign to remind people of the consequences for bringing their stash back home.

“I think Nebraskans are smart enough to know,” Bruning said.  “There is small group of Nebraskans that are interested in that and they ought to know the rules.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Bruning promised “if they bring it back they are going to have a problem.”

The Nebraska State Patrol maintains there is not enough data to warrant any change in policy or approach in enforcement. 

Major Mark Funkhouser, commander of Investigative Service, said the patrol is “seeing some localized increases in marijuana from Colorado” but added “it’s too soon to tell” how great the effect will be on law enforcement. 

“We haven’t seen the broad-based legalization of marijuana in Colorado yet.  When those retail outlets open, we may see a big impact,” Funkhouser said.  “We just don’t know at this point in time what effect that will have on our ability to continue the operations that we do on a daily basis right now.”

Data provided by the state patrol show troopers intercepted a record 7,800 pounds of marijuana last year and another 3,000 pounds so far this year.  

Some in local law enforcement along the I-80 corridor claim that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“If you think that just what you read about from patrol interdiction stops is what’s happening, then it is a distorted picture, because you are not getting the whole picture,” Sheriff Mark Overman said.  “You’re not reading about the stops that we make here and all the cases that we’re doing here and in fact all over Nebraska.  You (only) read about the big ones.”

Nor has the state talked about re-examining it’s approach to the public health issues related to marijuana.  Officials overseeing substance abuse programs for the State of Nebraska told NET News there have been no discussions about how to address increasing marijuana availability. 

One possible issue, raised by pharmacy professor Dering-Anderson, is the mixed messages being given young people as more and more states legalize medical marijuana.  She pointed out much of western Nebraska gets its news from Denver-based media.   

When our neighbor says ‘this is okay, we think this is safe, we ought to be able to do this,’ children hear the message this is okay and this is safe and it’s an appropriate recreational product,” Dering-Anderson said.  “I don't think this is a good message to send to children ever.”

While public debate is scarce in state government, one group decided voters should have the opportunity to weigh in. A petition drive is underway to make Nebraska the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana.  If they collect enough signatures it would place the question on the ballot next fall.

John Smith, President of the Nebraska chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.  (Photo by NET)

John Smith, the president of the Nebraska chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said, “the timing just seems right.” 

Smith, a resident of McCook, pointed out national public opinion polls are showing majority support of marijuana legalization for the first time.  He believes what is happening next-door changed opinions in Nebraska. 

“When they voted to legalize it for personal use in Colorado, it opened up the conversation in Nebraska,” Smith said.  “Whether you’re for it or against it, conversation is what it takes to make any change at all.”

Previous attempts to legalize marijuana in Nebraska failed handily.  Strong opposition from some quarters is guaranteed.  Surveyed by NET News only 15 percent of county law enforcement favored even a legislative debate over legalizing medical marijuana. Governor Dave Heineman often re-states his opposition and Attorney General Bruning told NET News “I’m pretty old-fashioned.  I just don’t see that it’s a great idea to make marijuana legal or anything else that alters the mind.”

Editor's Note:  Find more information on this reporting project including links to additional in-depth stories and our television documentary on our "Marijuana Crossroads" page.




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