Nebraska Says Colorado Pot Isn't Staying Across The Border

Feb 3, 2015
Originally published on February 4, 2015 10:02 am

There's a PSA that greets you on the radio when you're driving the flat stretch of Colorado State Highway 113 near the Nebraska state line: "With marijuana legal under Colorado law, we've all got a few things to know. ... Once you get here, can't leave our state. Stick around, this place is pretty great."

B.J. Wilkinson, police chief of nearby Sidney, Neb., rolls his eyes whenever he hears that spot, made by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Sidney is the first town north of the border, and Wilkinson knows firsthand that not everyone's listening to those ads.

"Do you really think that somebody listening to that is going to say, 'Oh, they said on the radio I shouldn't take my marijuana back into Nebraska. So because they said it on the radio and I got a warning, I'm gonna listen to it'? Nah," he says.

It's been more than a year since Colorado formally legalized recreational marijuana, and the police in the rural counties that border the state are reporting big increases in illegal marijuana trafficking.

Wilkinson says marijuana-related offenses in Sidney have increased 50 percent in that time, jumping from 100 to 150 cases.

Police in border towns like Sidney say that they didn't vote to legalize the drug, but that their communities are burdened with some of the consequences. Two states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, are asking the Supreme Court to throw out Colorado's law altogether. Colorado has a month left to respond to the lawsuit.

Changes Coming To 'In Small-Town America'

"I'm concerned what [Colorado's legalization] will lead to in terms of a change in culture," Wilkinson says, "a change in the way that we enjoy a certain quality, a certain type of life, in small-town America."

Wilkinson likes that small town life. He's spent his whole law enforcement career working in small towns. He's proud of Sidney, and it shows.

Sidney, with a population near 7,000, is the headquarters of the hunting and camping retailer Cabela's. It's expanding, and so is the local hospital. There are a lot of jobs to be had here. Wilkinson says Sidney is thriving — and he doesn't want Colorado's experiment with marijuana to get in the way.

"I'm not disputing the fact that the people of Colorado voted to make this opportunity exist. I get all that," he says. "My problem is, is that the fallout from it is impacting our way of life and our quality of life here."

Much of what you hear about pot in this community is still pretty anecdotal. The cops say they're seeing an increase in distribution cases involving high school kids, but the high school principal says school officials haven't noticed more of the drug around, and the health department said it's an issue they're tracking.

Spend a couple of days in Sidney, and you won't find that marijuana is the number-one topic of conversation in town.

Bring it up to older folks — the ranchers who've been here 60 years — and sure, they'll bash Colorado's hippie culture. One man in a cafe told me that Colorado's dope shouldn't be Nebraska's problem.

But bump into someone who's younger, and there's a good chance they might tell you pot isn't as big a deal as it's being made out to be.

"There's always been pot around," says Brandon Sean, who grew up here. He doesn't smoke pot, but he says this part of the Nebraska panhandle is more independent and libertarian — like Colorado.

"What do you do? I mean, you're not gonna stop it from coming over," he says. "That's kinda like the border down south — you ain't gonna stop it."

'Tons Of People, All The Time'

It's hard to say how much marijuana is coming into Nebraska border towns like this, but one thing is clear: Plenty of people will tell you that if you want to buy pot, you don't have to go far.

The closest dispensary is about a 45-minute drive southeast in Sedgwick, Colo.

The town in the far northeastern corner of the state is small — just a couple of streets. There's a bar and an old stage coach motel-turned-antique shop. Next door to the hair salon there's Sedgwick Alternative Relief, which markets itself as the "First Dispensary in Colorado."

Cathy, who doesn't want her last name used because this is such a small town, is getting highlights in her hair. She lives off one of the back roads by the state line, and it's clear she wants nothing to do with the dispensary.

"I think it's increased our revenue, it's definitely increased our population — maybe not with the kindest people," she says. "You just see more out-of-state plates than what we normally do. Like, before the pot shop came into town, nobody drove those roads, and now you see tons of people, all the time."

Today, a couple of cars with Colorado plates are parked in front of the dispensary. There are also plates from Illinois and Kansas and two from Nebraska.

Nobody really wants to talk to a reporter with a microphone. The dispensary's assistant manager doesn't want to give an interview on tape, but tells me the business sees a lot of customers coming down from Nebraska. But they're mostly older, he says, buying for their own personal use. They're not dealers.

'We Don't Want This Stuff Here'

This isn't a big secret. Top law enforcement officials in Colorado have said their state is becoming a major exporter of marijuana, even though it's against the law for pot to leave the state.

The evidence locker in the courthouse in Deuel County, Neb., east of Sidney and connected to Sedgwick, Colo., by Interstate 76, makes that clear.

"These bags here, these totes, these buckets, this was all off of one traffic stop," says Sheriff Adam Hayward. "This is 75 pounds of marijuana."

Hayward says he's overwhelmed.

Deuel County is roughly the size of Los Angeles, but has a population of just 2,000. Hayward has only a handful of deputies. In 2011 there were only four felony marijuana convictions in the county, but in 2014, there were 32, costing the county $150,000 — money that didn't go toward fixing roads or schools, Hayward says.

"Every bit of marijuana we have in here came from Colorado," Hayward says. "We need to stand up and say, 'No, we don't want this stuff here.' It's dangerous. It's bad for people's health. You don't want your kids getting involved in this."

For cops in these small towns along the Colorado border, this fight is about people's health.That's why Nebraska and Oklahoma aren't asking the Supreme Court to force Colorado to pay court costs — they're asking for Colorado's entire experiment with legal, recreational marijuana to be shut down, full stop.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The state of Colorado is upsetting its neighbors. It's been just over a year since Colorado formally legalized recreational marijuana and now police in the rural counties that border the state are reporting big increases in illegal marijuana trafficking. Police in these border towns say they didn't vote to legalize the drug, but yet their communities are dealing with the consequences. In fact, two states - Nebraska and Oklahoma - are now asking the Supreme Court to throw out Colorado's law all together. NPR's Kirk Siegler sent this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: I'm driving Colorado State Highway 113 on this pancake-flat stretch of frozen land not far from the Nebraska state line. The local radio has just finished a report on last night's high school basketball scores and then, this...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: With marijuana legal under Colorado law, we've all got a few things to know.

SIEGLER: On cue, a pot PSA.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And what you get here can't leave our state. Stick around, this place is pretty great.

SIEGLER: When B.J. Wilkinson hears that spot, he rolls his eyes.

B.J. WILKINSON: Do you really think that somebody listening to that is going to say, oh, they said on the radio I shouldn't take my marijuana back into Nebraska. So because they said it on the radio and I got a warning, I'm going to listen to it - no.

SIEGLER: Wilkinson is the chief of police in Sidney, Neb. It's the first place you come to after crossing the border, and he's showing me around town. Wilkinson knows firsthand that not everyone's listening to those ads. He tells me there's been a 50 percent increase in marijuana-related offenses in Sidney in the year since Colorado legalized, from a hundred to 150 cases.

WILKINSON: And I'm concerned what that will lead to in terms of a change in culture, a change in the way that we enjoy a certain quality, a certain type of life in small-town America.

SIEGLER: Wilkinson likes that small-town life. He spent his whole law-enforcement career working in small towns and he's proud of Sidney and it shows.

WILKINSON: Interestingly, this building that we just drove past over here is the original Cabela's retail store.

SIEGLER: Sidney, population 7,000, is the headquarters of the hunting and camping retailer Cabela's, so there are a lot of jobs to be had here. Wilkinson says Sidney is thriving and he doesn't want Colorado's experiment with marijuana to get in the way.

WILKINSON: I'm not disputing the fact that the people of Colorado voted to make this opportunity exist. I get all of that. My problem is that the fallout from it is impacting our way of life and our quality of life here.

SIEGLER: A lot of what you hear about pot in this community is still pretty anecdotal. The cops say they're seeing an increase in distribution cases involving high school kids, but the high school principal told me they hadn't noticed more of the drug around yet. The health department said it's an issue they're tracking. Spend a couple days in Sidney and it's not like marijuana is the number-one topic of conversation in town. Bring it up to older folks, the ranchers who've been here 60 years, and sure, they'll bash Colorado's hippie culture. One man in a cafe told me that Colorado's dope shouldn't be Nebraska's problem. But bump into someone who's younger and there's a good chance they might tell you pot isn't as big of a deal as it's being made out to be.

BRANDON SEAN: There's always been pot around.

SIEGLER: Brandon Sean grew up here. He doesn't smoke it but he says this part of the Nebraska panhandle is more independent, more libertarian like Colorado.

SEAN: What do you do? I mean, you're not going to stop it from coming over. That's kind of like the border down south - You ain't going to stop it.

SIEGLER: It's hard to say how much marijuana is coming into Nebraska border towns like this, but one thing's clear - plenty of people will tell you, if you want to buy pot you don't have to go very far. The closest dispensary is only about a 40-minute drive away in Sedgwick, Colo. There's a bar here, an old stage coach motel-turned-antique shop and then there's Sedgwick Alternative Relief, which markets itself as the first dispensary in Colorado. It's next-door to the hair salon. Sedgwick is small - I mean really small - just a couple streets.

CATHY: Are you looking for something? You don't look like a local so I just figured I'd ask you.

SIEGLER: This woman who's getting highlights in her hair ducks out of the salon to ask if I'm lost. Cathy doesn't want me to use her last name because this is such a small town and it's clear she wants nothing at all to do with the dispensary.

CATHY: I think it's increased our revenue. It's definitely increased our population. Maybe not with the kindest people but...

SIEGLER: She lives off one of the back roads by the state line.

CATHY: You just see more out-of-state plates than what we normally do. Like, before the pot shop came into town, nobody drove those roads and now you see tons of people, all the time.

SIEGLER: On this afternoon there are a couple of cars with Colorado plates parked in front of the dispensary. There's also an Illinois, I see a Kansas, two from Nebraska. The dispensary's assistant manager doesn't want to give an interview on tape, but he tells me they get a lot of customers coming down from Nebraska, but they're mostly older, buying for their own personal use. They're not dealers. Well, this isn't some big secret. Top law enforcement in Colorado have said their state is becoming a major exporter of marijuana. Pay a visit to the evidence locker in the Deuel County, Neb. courthouse basement and that's pretty clear.

ADAM HAYWARD: These bags here, these totes, these buckets - this was all off of one traffic stop. This is 75 pounds of marijuana.

SIEGLER: Sheriff Adam Hayward is overwhelmed. Those back roads out of Sedgwick, they lead you to Deuel County.

HAYWARD: Every bit of marijuana we have in here came from Colorado.

SIEGLER: Deuel County is roughly the size of Los Angeles, but there are only 2,000 people and Hayward has a handful of deputies. This past year there were 32 felony marijuana prosecutions. There were only four in 2011. It has cost this county $150,000, money Sheriff Hayward says didn't go to fixing roads or schools.

HAYWARD: We need to stand up and say no, we don't want this stuff here. It's dangerous. It's bad for people's health. You don't want your kids getting involved in this.

SIEGLER: And for cops in these small towns along the border with Colorado, that's what this fight is about. And it's why Nebraska and Oklahoma aren't asking the Supreme Court to force Colorado to pay court costs or anything else. They're asking for Colorado's entire experiment with legal recreational marijuana to be shut down. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.