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Inside the legal crusade against Colorado’s marijuana laws

Late last year, Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to declare Colorado's marijuana law unconstitutional, due to an influx of pot illegally entering those states. Now, as the Supreme Court decides whether to take up the case, Colorado has filed a petition to withdraw the lawsuit. NewsHour's Alison Stewart reports.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    Adam Hayward is the sheriff of Deuel County, Nebraska, which is right by the state line with Colorado. Sheriff Hayward says his work hasn’t been the same since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana.

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    Keep it over there. It’s still illegal here. We don’t have a choice. We have to enforce the law.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The sheriff says he’s arrested all sorts of people carrying marijuana back from Colorado along Interstate 76: teenagers making weekend runs to Denver and once a 67 year old grandmother. With each arrest the sheriff collects more and more marijuana. It is cataloged and then stored in the Deuel County jail cell.

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    Now we keep our evidence here.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Which you can smell.

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    All these trash bags, these totes, this, these were all out of one stop we had.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    That’s one stop?

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    There were 75 pounds that this gentleman had.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What?

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    And they had, like I said, all these bags, all these totes were filled. These are essentially like a one pound package and there’s 75 of these packages, and this was out of one traffic stop.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Wow, what did he get pulled over for?

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    Speeding.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The sheriff says that batch of pot came from a marijuana growing facility in Colorado. He’s also recovered lots of edible products in cars he pulls over on I-76.

    The number of marijuana cases is soaring. In 2011 when Colorado only sold medical cannabis, the sheriff stopped someone coming back from Colorado with pot less than once a week. Last year when recreational cannabis became legal, the sheriff’s county had more than one marijuana case a week.

    Earlier this year, there were at least five cases a week.

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    We just go out and stop cars for normal traffic violations. And it seems to be that there are so many people that are going over to get this you just can’t help but run into it just by stopping a few cars.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What hasn’t changed is the number of officers working in Deuel County: three full time and two part time officers. The sheriff says his county is being stretched thin.

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    Well, we’re a small department. We usually have one person on at a time. So if they run across something then they’re having to call somebody out.

    Well, then you’re paying overtime, and where we’ve had more arrests and more people in jail, you know, it takes more time in the court. You know, we’re having to transport prisoners back and forth, have more people in the courtroom for security.

    So it ties up our time dealing with these versus, you know, we could be doing other things, patrolling in town.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    It takes up time and money. After an arrest, regardless of whether the person is from Nebraska, Colorado or elsewhere, the county picks up the bill for housing and medical treatment for those in custody, as well as the cost of hiring a public defender.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Sheriff Hayward says his annual jail budget has almost tripled – up nearly 100,000 dollars since 2011.

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    When you have something jump up $100,000, that’s a pretty big increase for 2,000 people to cover.  

  • ALISON STEWART:

    How are you closing that gap financially?

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    Basically out here, I mean, all the tax revenue is generated from property taxes. So if the county needs more money they have to raise the property taxes, and, you know, it goes back to the taxpayers.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Nebraska law ends here at the Colorado border. So while Sheriff Hayward is doing his job just over there in the Cornhusker state, over here the owner of the first dispensary by Colorado’s north border is doing his.

  • MIKE KOLLARITS:

    I’m currently employing nine people full time.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Mike Kollartis owns a marijuana dispensary in Sedgwick, Colorado, a town about seven miles from the border. His store, Sedgwick Alternative Relief, which sells both medical and recreational marijuana, is newly renovated.

    It stands out along this main street that has seen better days. It has become the main draw to this quiet town of 150 people.

  • MIKE KOLLARTIS:

    They’re pretty happy about the renovations I’ve done, the employment I’ve brought, the dollars, the tax revenue dollars are outstanding.

  • LUPE PENA CASIAS:

    Oh my goodness. It’s been good.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Lupe Pena Casias owns a restaurant and inn across the street. She says the town has seen a huge financial boost because each time there’s a marijuana sale at the store, the town of Sedgwick gets a five dollar transaction fee. And as long as the dispensary is open, the customers keep coming.

  • LUPE PENA CASIAS:

    It’s busy, busy, busy over there and busy, busy, busy here.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Employees at the store are trained to look out for customers who might break the law. The dispensary also displays signs detailing the marijuana laws of Colorado and neighboring states.

    Yet there is still an influx of pot coming into Nebraska and Oklahoma. So the Attorneys General of both states filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court in December, alleging that they, “have suffered direct and significant harm arising from the increased presence of Colorado-sourced marijuana.”

    Nebraska and Oklahoma also contend that Colorado’s marijuana law “directly conflicts with federal law and undermines…the area of drug control and enforcement.”

    And so both states are asking the Supreme Court to declare Colorado’s marijuana law unconstitutional and in doing so, undo Colorado’s marijuana regulatory system.

    But this past March, Colorado asked the Supreme Court to drop the lawsuit. Washington and Oregon – states that also legalized the possession and sale of marijuana – immediately came out in support of Colorado’s request. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether to take up the case.

    Bill Kelly is a reporter with Nebraska’s public radio station NET who’s been covering the issue. We video chatted with him because he’s based in the state’s capitol Lincoln, over 300 miles away from where we were reporting at the Nebraska/Colorado border.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Medical marijuana, obviously, has been around for a long time in Colorado, and everyone saw that recreational was coming down the pipeline. Why didn’t Nebraska legislators get more involved in dealing with this porous border issue earlier?

  • BILL KELLY:

    I’m not certain Nebraska policy makers were really prepared for what was going to happen. You were starting to see more possession cases, you were starting to see more driving under the influence cases.  But there was, I think, a little bit of the deer-in-the-headlights feeling that we don’t know what the appropriate response is.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Some Nebraskan lawmakers believe that the appropriate response is to change the state’s marijuana laws. But there are many different ideas about what to do: one would be to legalize medical cannabis while another would increase the fines for edible marijuana products.

    The penalties in Nebraska depend on how much pot is in your possession. A first time offense, under an ounce, is a $300 fine. More than an ounce but less than a pound is a misdemeanor with possible jail time and a fine. But more than a pound is a felony with a maximum five years in prison and or a $10,000 fine.

    While Nebraska deliberates whether to allow marijuana or keep it out of the state, some residents like Jeremy Crary find themselves caught between the laws of Nebraska and Colorado.

    Nine years ago Crary accidently shot himself in the head while playing with a gun. After painful surgeries and physical therapy, he spent years on more than a dozen medications and received regular shots of Botox for severe muscle spasms, but recently he started taking medical cannabis instead.

    He says it’s the most effective in relieving his pain and spasms.

  • JEREMY CRARY:

    I just quit taking all my pain pills they prescribed me and stuff.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Crary has made several trips across the border to marijuana dispensaries. He says the strains of marijuana he can legally purchase in Colorado are better for his pain than what he can get illegally in his area.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What’s it like for you to knowingly break the law when you’re driving back from Colorado with some weed in your car heading home?  

  • JEREMY CRARY:

    I mean, it makes you feel like a criminal. I hate it. I never know whether the next cop’s gonna be so I’m always looking around.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    We spoke to a sheriff of Deuel County which is one of those counties you have to drive through to get back this way. Are you concerned at all about being part of that group that’s breaking the law or that’s causing him and taxpayers in that town a problem?

  • JEREMY CRARY:

    No, not really.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Why not?

  • JEREMY CRARY:

    I’m not looking to just get high.  I’m not trying to bring it back and sell it. I’m just trying to relieve myself of having to use pharmaceuticals to have a decent life.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    If people are making the effort to actually go buy this legally in Colorado as opposed to breaking two laws in Nebraska, “I’m gonna buy it illegally and then I’m gonna use it illegally.” Shouldn’t there be some sort of elasticity to the punishment?

  • SHERIFF ADAM HAYWARD:

    No, I mean, it’s legal over there. That’s fine. If you wanna buy it over there, use it over there. Don’t come back here with it because it’s illegal.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The sheriff says he’s seeing more DUIDs – driving under the influence of drugs. He’s also been visiting local schools with confiscated marijuana edibles to show teachers students might possess. And he expects he’ll spend more time on Interstate 76 until this unintended consequence is resolved.

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