Since Colorado’s pot stores opened, a huge cloud of smoke appears to have wafted its way into Nebraska, leaving a slew of marijuana possession arrests in its wake.
In fact, Nebraska law enforcement wrote a total of 15 percent more weed-related citations than they did last year, said Public Safety Director Tom Casady.
But 300 miles away in places like Lincoln and Lancaster County, the effect of marijuana legalization seem to be minimal. Violent crime hasn’t increased; pot hasn’t flooded the streets; and the police aren’t up to their eyeballs in confiscated drug money. In short, Lincoln’s drug trade hasn’t changed much, said Lincoln Police Department Capt. and head of narcotics unit Chris Peterson.
“It’s been business as usual,” he said. “There hasn’t been any dramatic changes. But just because Colorado’s legalization didn’t bombard Lincoln with weed out of the gate, that doesn’t mean the amount won’t creep up over the next couple of years.”
“We’re certainly paying attention,” he said.
It appears that the Lancaster County sheriff is too.
When Coloradans voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2012, Sheriff Terry Wagner got ready. He sent two of his best deputies to start training on how to extract drugs and drug money from automobiles: spare tires, gas tanks, radiators, etc.
It was a resounding success. In two years the deputies went on to seize $4.5 million in drug money ($3.3 million this year), and more than 6 pounds of marijuana in the first 10 months of this year.
The sheriff said he doesn’t statistically know how much weed came through Lancaster County prior to 2013, compared to now after Colorado’s law took effect; however, he said the quality of the marijuana has gone up over the past year, as professional operations have replaced their fly-by-night counterparts.
“I think the percentage of THC in the stuff we’re seizing now is gonna be a lot higher than the stuff we used to see,” Wagner said.
But investigators aren’t just finding more potent pot. They are also finding a wider array of products, not exclusively the plant form that users traditionally smoke. Deputies are now encountering a new form of marijuana possession in professionally made edibles, like baked goods and candies. This makes the job of law enforcement officers more difficult for several reasons: one, a pot-laced candy bar looks like a regular candy bar and, two, these confections don’t smell strongly of marijuana like buds.
Police officers in small towns along the Nebraska border, adjacent Colorado, said there has been a massive influx of marijuana possession and sales infiltrating their communities, particularly all along Interstate 80. For example, felony drug arrests in in Nebraska’s small panhandle town of Chappell, population 926, have quadrupled in three years. Those marijuana offenders clog up the small court systems and jails in counties like Deuel, where the population is just under 2,000.
The Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee met in September with law enforcement officers to find solutions and figure out how to help the situation.
According to a federal study released in August, the number of seizures of marijuana leaving Colorado quadrupled between 2008 and 2013, while the average haul went up by one-third.
But troopers with the Nebraska State Patrol have seen less marijuana since November 2012, and a lot less suspected drug money, according to NSP data.
On average, troopers seized between $2 million and $2.8 million in the first 10 months of the past four years; however, they nabbed $897,000 this year during the same time span. That’s a 67 percent drop, according to that data.
At the same time, they found 1,995 pounds of marijuana, 13 percent lower than last year and the lowest amount since at least 2009. Accordingly, the number of tickets handed out for having and selling marijuana remained the same between last year and this year.
“We are not overwhelmed by the problem,” Patrol Col. David Sankey said. “We haven’t changed our business practice at all. But one big bust could jack up the numbers.”
Sankey said his fellow officers around the country are experiencing the same thing he is: The state of Nebraska did not turn into an apocalyptic wasteland since Colorado and Washington State legalized recreational marijuana.
“They’re seeing the same thing we’re seeing. They’re doing what we’re doing — business as usual,” he said. “Right now we’re just trying to collect the data.
“That will help us formulate a strategy.”