Pitler and Associates
With pot legal in Colorado, western Nebraska police appeal for help
By David Hendee / World-Herald News Service
OGALLALA — Lawmen on the state’s marijuana frontier asked for help Monday to identify drug-fogged drivers and to stem growing marijuana access and use by young people.
During a hearing of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in Ogallala, western Nebraska law enforcement officers outlined the impact of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use.
“Colorado’s legalization of marijuana has completely changed the landscape involving the marijuana that we encounter,” said Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman.
Overman said the potency of the pot encountered by law enforcement agencies has increased dramatically. Prices have at least tripled and there is a marked increase in the number of kids as young as 14 who are being ticketed for possession.
Overman was one of about a dozen law enforcement officials and others who outlined challenges Nebraska has faced since Colorado legalized pot. Colorado opened dispensaries for medical marijuana in 2009. And specially licensed stores started selling retail weed on Jan. 1 to adults 21 and older.
State Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said it’s a statewide issue. “Every Interstate 80 county is a border county,” he said, referring to the illicit transport of Colorado marijuana across Nebraska.
Although marijuana use is legal in Colorado, it remains an illicit drug under federal law and in Nebraska and the six other states bordering Colorado.
State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said after the hearing that he or other state senators probably would introduce legislation next year to address some of the concerns presented Monday.
But Davis said he would move cautiously.
“Are we ruining people’s lives who are really going to be good people down the road? I don’t think any of us want to do that,’’ he said.
Davis said he wants to protect Nebraskans and help law enforcement agencies do their job.
“I’d like to find a middle ground to send a message to people that Nebraska’s not a marijuana-friendly state but not destroy somebody’s life,’’ he said. “When I hear that people might have a felony for a marijuana brownie, I’m not sure I want to do that to anybody.’’
Davis said the legalization of marijuana in Colorado is increasing the workload of Nebraska’s county sheriffs, state troopers, county attorneys, defense attorneys and courts.
“Obviously, this produces added costs, which create a burden for taxpayers across the state but primarily in the affected counties close to Colorado,” he said.
Davis said his biggest concern is that many western sheriff’s offices and police departments could use more manpower and money.
State laws contain a lot of gray areas that need clarity, he said.
For example, lawmakers heard one official say it’s impossible to prosecute people possessing marijuana-laced edibles, such as commercially packaged cookies and candy. But another official said his county fully prosecutes such offenders.
“We need a statutory definition of what edibles are,’’ Davis said.
Law enforcement officers said Nebraska is not alone in scrambling to deal with the impact of Colorado’s marijuana legalization.
A recent federal study found that Colorado marijuana destined for 40 states had been intercepted during highway stops 288 times in 2013.
The average number of highway seizures of Colorado marijuana per year quadrupled in the period of 2009 to 2013, compared with 2005 to 2008, before legalization.
Paul Schaub, county attorney in Cheyenne and Deuel Counties, said rural areas need more experts in identifying drug-impaired drivers.
Davis said after the meeting he hoped the Legislature could help.
The enforcement of Nebraska’s marijuana laws in counties bordering Colorado is inadequate, Overman said. Most sheriff’s offices have small staffs, and deputies spend only a fraction of their time patrolling major highways, he said.
“We would welcome additional state troopers, but that will not solve the problem,’’ Overman said.
But Ryan Spohn, director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said increased law enforcement presence could help.
Research generally indicates that increasing the certainty of punishment, as opposed to the severity of punishment, is more likely to result in deterrence, he said.
“Most simply … if individuals do not believe that they will be caught the severity of the punishment doesn’t matter, because they do not believe that the punishment will occur,’’ he said.
The hearing was part of an interim study on the impact of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana on law enforcement and the judicial system in western Nebraska.
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