Sandra Fish

Nebraska courthouse feels fallout from Colorado drug laws

Those with legally purchased marijuana are falling afoul of the law beyond Colorado’s borders

CHAPPELL, Neb. — It’s a Monday afternoon in this town of 943 people, and at the Deuel County Court House, a half dozen or so 20-somethings are sitting in a courtroom.

They’re mostly well dressed, some with their parents, others on their own. They’re from Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota and Colorado. And they’re waiting to face a judge on marijuana charges.

Call it the overflow effect from Colorado’s legalization of marijuana and opening of retail stores earlier this year. Deuel County is where Interstate 80 meets Interstate 76, the main route east from Denver. The county has two towns and just under 2,000 residents.

But the Nebraska Highway Patrol and Deuel County deputies are doing plenty of business stopping young drivers leaving Colorado for traffic infractions. Searches of cars often turn up leftovers from their visit. And, in the case of edibles that include hash oil, those souvenirs often result in a felony charge and a jail stay.

Some of those out-of-staters in Deuel County Court say they’re being targeted unfairly, though Sheriff Adam Hayward says that isn’t happening. He says the arrests are costing the county thousands of dollars in jail and legal costs. He has suggested that Colorado cover the costs, but also hopes the Nebraska Legislature increases fines for misdemeanor marijuana violations.

But travel across county and even state lines, and courthouses aren’t nearly as packed with offenders heading home from Colorado.  

One thing perhaps everyone agrees on is that Colorado’s legal pot doesn’t necessarily stay there.

“It is one of those things that you cannot keep within your borders,” said Dave Faries, editor and publisher of the Sidney Sun-Telegram in Sidney, Nebraska.

Deuel County Court

Large fans in the back of the Deuel County courtroom whir loudly to cool the air on a July day. All the 13 criminal cases Judge Derek C. Weimer hears that afternoon involve marijuana charges.

Weimer calls two young men from Minnesota to the defendants’ table, where they sit next to local defense lawyer Joel Jay.

The two were stopped in March driving at 91 mph on I-76. A search of their vehicle turned up products that could be considered hashish, thus potential cause for felony charges.

Now, almost four months later, the two each plead guilty to a misdemeanor. They get two days in jail, with credit for the time they’ve served, and $500 fines. They respond to Weimer’s questions politely: “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”

As he pronounces their sentences, Weimer lets them know how fortunate they are to avoid a felony conviction, and offers his opinion on what’s happening in the state to the south.

“You’re certainly not the first people who have found themselves in this set of circumstances,” he says. “I couldn’t care less what the citizens of Colorado have chosen to do. Can’t. Care. Less. You have no business taking it out of the state of Colorado. You have no business taking it back to the state of Minnesota.”

Next up is a young woman who was stopped while driving from Colorado to Minnesota in early January. Her misdemeanor is being increased to a felony because she had a portion of a pot brownie, which contains hash oil, aka hashish. As she leaves the courtroom with her parents, her mother motions to the only reporter in the room to come along.

“This is a travesty, what’s going on here,” the mom says. “This is a total kangaroo court.”

South of the border

Mike Kollartis, owner of Sedgwick Alternative Relief, in Sedgwick, Colorado.
Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Earlier that day, about 20 miles south in Sedgwick, Colorado, an older couple left a modular building on Main Avenue, placed a bag in the back of their SUV with Pennsylvania plates and drove away.

They’re typical of the clientele at Sedgwick Alternative Relief, which sells both medical and recreational marijuana, according to budtender Peggy Owens, who is 71.

“Our average age is probably 50 to 60,” she said. “Kids don’t come in.”

Main is the only paved road in this tiny town of fewer than 200 on Colorado’s eastern plains, two miles west of I-76. There’s a Buddhist temple, a tavern, a bed-and-breakfast and a hair salon.

“As a business owner in Sedgwick, I’m all about more revenue,” said Mariah Patton, 24, owner of Small Change Hair Salon. She doesn’t object to the business next door, and notes that the owners of the cannabis business are remodeling an older building on Main as a permanent home.

But, Patton added, “I have a lot of Chappell clients, and they’re not happy.”

County Sheriff Hayward among them.

At 34, he isn’t that much older than the courtroom defendants. He’s been sheriff since 2011 and with the department since 2005.

In 2013, there were about 30 felony marijuana cases in Deuel County.

“We’re already up to about 30 and we’re only halfway through the year,” Hayward said. “Same thing with our misdemeanors. We’ve seen an increase in those, too.”

State troopers make about half the arrests and the rest are made by Hayward’s deputies. Rarely do the stops involve large amounts of marijuana, but it all comes from Colorado, he said.

“We’re not out there looking for this stuff, these are just regular traffic stops for a speeding violation,” Hayward said. “The local people around here … they don’t want that stuff here in our community.”

Marvin Stone, of Kearney, Nebraska, accompanied his 21-year-old grandson from Denver to court in Chappell on that July Monday. Originally charged with a felony, the young man pleaded guilty to two minor infractions and was fined $400.

But Stone said he doesn’t object to what’s happening in Deuel County.

“I think they do what they have to do,” said Stone, who is in his early 80s. “We don’t have any inclination to legalize it in Nebraska because we view it as harmful.”

West of the line

Thirty miles west in Sidney, however, the court reports read differently. There are thefts and burglaries, drug charges involving methamphetamine and painkillers, DUIs. Most of the accused are locals. Few of the offenses involve marijuana.

I-80 runs just south of Sidney, and U.S. 30 and 385 intersect in the town of almost 7,000.

Glenna Phelps-Aurich, executive director of the Cheyenne County Chamber of Commerce in Sidney, said locals don’t express much concern about Colorado’s marijuana legalization.

“I think it’s caused some issues for law enforcement,” she said. “There are a lot of people who live in Colorado and commute here for work. They kind of joke about it a lot.”

Dave Faries, the newspaper editor, agreed. He said the community has a meth problem, but said marijuana doesn’t seem to be that big an issue.

“There are marijuana arrests here, but not a lot of them,” he said. “I’m not sure that the traffic is getting here. I don’t think on the local level it resonates as much. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are concerned.”

Cheyenne, Wyoming, is about an hour west of Sidney on I-80, intersecting with Interstate 25 about 12 miles north of the Colorado border.

Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick shares Hayward’s border apprehension.

“Colorado pot is showing up all across these places,” he said. “It’s causing a concern for these agencies because we’re small, rural Western communities. It’s causing a burden.”

But a review of 151 Laramie County jail booking records from June 28 through July 8 revealed nine people jailed for marijuana possession. Only one was from outside Wyoming.

While the 325-person jail is nearly full much of the time, “a very small percentage” of the population is there because of marijuana arrests, Glick said. Most of those stopped on I-80 or I-25 with pot are cited for misdemeanors, issued tickets and sent on their way, he said.

“The way you establish probable cause for a search is that you can smell it,” said Charles Pelkey, a defense attorney who lives in the city of Laramie and represents cases all over Wyoming. “It’s amazing, the olfactory senses of Wyoming troopers.”

Pelkey’s firm is a member of the legal committee of NORML, which campaigns for the reform of marijuana law, and its website outlines laws in Wyoming and suggestions for those stopped on roadways. One bit of advice: Make it clear verbally, but politely, that you aren’t consenting to a search of the vehicle. Because most police use video cameras, that statement will be recorded and can be used in a defense case.

Of course, driving the speed limit and hoping for some good luck helps too.

“We know it’s coming in,” Glick said. “You can’t stop every vehicle because you can’t create a roadblock, obviously.”

Related News

Colorado, Nebraska

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Colorado, Nebraska

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter