Special Report - Nebraska v. Colorado: The War on Weed

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A court fight is looming between Nebraska and Colorado. As more and more states begin making recreational marijuana legal, dispensary owners in Colorado believe Nebraska will be on the wrong side of history.

When Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 and became the first state to allow marijuana to be sold for recreational use and not just as a medicine, Andy Williams, who runs the Medicine Man dispensary in Denver, believed a nationwide shift in culture was inevitable. “All over the country they're debating not 'if,' but 'what' are we going to do.”

The demand forced expansion. In one year, his business doubled. For the first full year of recreational sales in 2014, his operation brought in $9-million. If you are over 21-years-old, you could buy it.

Brian Mastre: “Do you think Colorado voters regret changing the law?”
Andy Williams: “Not at all. Colorado has embraced it. There's a lot of data that points to less violent crime and lower teen use in Colorado.”

Late in February, WOWT 6 News tracked Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson in western Nebraska as he built the state's lawsuit against Colorado. His ultimate goal is to shut down the pot industry. “To me, people are being sold a bill of goods from people who stand to make millions from this industry. Our culture is at a pretty critical time where a whole generation of youth are at risk and adults need to step up and say this is a real potential harm to fight against.”

(read the lawsuit and the AG's open letter to Nebraskans in the box to the right)

Law enforcement in western Nebraska sees it time and again during traffic stops. “We knew Colorado wasn't going to be able to keep it in Colorado,” said Sheriff Adam Hayward of Deuel County, Nebraska. His county in the Nebraska Panhandle is just a few miles from a Colorado dispensary.

When manpower is at a premium for a small county sheriff, having something legal only a few miles away from where it's illegal straps resources.

“This is far more powerful than anything we've dealt with before,” said Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman, who says the ease and proximity of Colorado's legal marijuana is turning Nebraska young people into drug dealers at home.

Experts say the black market didn't go away either. “The information we get in the attorney general's office is this is bringing in the cartels from Mexico,” said Nebraska AG Doug Peterson. “They think they sanctified the process and the cartels went away. They're coming in stronger. I recently heard today that the Russian cartels are here to compete for the market. It's a terrible social experiment.”

While most of Colorado's 2,200 marijuana dispensaries are near population centers – not in Sedgwick, Colorado. The last census counted 142 people in town.

Sheriff Adam Hayward: “We're 12 miles from Sedgwick to the county line.”

Sheriff John Jenson: “And we're on the outskirts of about 30.”

Nebraska sheriffs of Cheyenne County and Deuel County experience the impact of Colorado marijuana daily. Both men are plantiffs in another lawsuit aimed at stopping the flow of pot across the border.

“We're not targeting the Colorado people,” said John Jenson of Cheyenne County, Nebraska. “It's our own people that now they can drive 30 minutes to a dispensary – pick it up legal – and the problem is when it comes back across the state.”

The cost of doing business as a county skyrocketed -- from enforcement to prosecution to incarceration.

Brian Mastre: “I would think people would be using back roads and doing everything they can to avoid detection. No?”

Sheriff Jenson: “They're not. They're adamantly coming across. Years ago, you're used to seeing 200, 300, 400 lb loads. You don't have to do that now because it's so close.”

Brian Mastre: “It's like they're flaunting it?”

Sheriff Adam Hayward: “The ones that we catch – it seems like a lot of them don't care that they got caught. It doesn't bother them and then they argue that it's legal in Colorado, and we can take it wherever we want.“

Brian Mastre: “Do you think there's any merit to Nebraska suing Colorado over this?”

Andy Williams with Medicine Man dispensary: “Absolutely not. They're saying we're the cause of that. Did they not think any marijuana was going across the border before we were in business? I think there was.”

Brian Mastre: “But investigators are saying it's worse now.”

Andy Williams: “Maybe they're patrolling it more now. Even if it is more now, is that because Nebraska residents are coming here and buying it and bringing it back? How are we to control Nebraska residents who are breaking the law? I have no power over them.”

The rules in Colorado work this way: it's legal for out-of-state residents to buy recreational marijuana in Colorado. You cannot smoke it in public, however.

One difference: Colorado residents can buy an ounce of pot.

Out-of-state residents are allowed to buy up to a quarter ounce a day, but nothing in the law keeps track of those going to other dispensaries and getting more.

Olivia Grider believes the war on drugs has been handled poorly for years. “It's ridiculous. You shouldn't go to jail for some pot.”

She came to Denver from Oklahoma for a concert. Oklahoma is also suing Colorado over marijuana. “I plan on moving here anywhere,” Ms Grider told WOWT 6 News, “So either way – it will be legal for me.”

The Medicine Man sees the trend of other states following Colorado's lead as a sign that his state is on to something.

What Colorado and Washington State are doing is regulating marijuana, and it's illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. But in 2013, the Justice Department backed off prosecution and cleared the way for the marijuana boon.

Brian Mastre: “Do you worry at all that the Department of Justice will change its mind and all this goes away?”

Andy Williams: “I've lived with this for so long – that it's just buzz in my head anymore. I don't even think about it. I don't think the DOJ is going to change its mind on that. The genie is out of the bottle.”

It won't be long and we'll hear a response from the Colorado Attorney General. The state is expected to file official paperwork by the end of the month in the lawsuit from Nebraska and Oklahoma. Even then, there's no guaranteed the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case.

Colorado's AG declined a WOWT 6 News interview request. A spokeswoman said, “Because this matter is one that is before the high court, we are not granting interview.”

“These guys are fighting this problem already,” said Nebraska Attorney General Peterson in an exclusive inteview with WOWT 6 News in Gering, Nebraska, with local law enforcement. “They're running into kids who are bringing it back – high school. We're talking 14, 15, 16 year-olds. And they're saying, 'What's the big deal? Colorado legalized it.' It's an impairment industry that stands to make a big profit. They need to expand the market and this is one of the closest markets to do it.”

Brian Mastre: “Do people ask if they can take this out of state when they come here?”
Andy Williams: “Yes.”
Brian Mastre: “What do you tell them?”
Williams: “We say you can't take this across state lines. You could go to jail for that.

Dispensary owners put it this way: no matter the regulation, there will always be some people who don't follow the rules.

Andy Williams: “Since we're the closest dispensary to the airport, we get people all the time that ask if they can take it on the airplane.”
Brian Mastre: “Are you surprised they're even asking?”
Andy Williams: “I am. I don't quite get that.”

So what does the data say?

An August report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Trafficking Area called “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact” found, Colorado young people – between 12 and 17 – use marijuana at a 39% higher rate than the national average.

(read the full report in the link next to this story)

Brian Mastre: “There's still scientific evidence out there that marijuana use among young people can affect your memory.”

Andy Williams: “I agree. Young people shouldn't be using marijuana. This industry does a lot to educate the public on that.”

Brian Mastre: “Do you hear from people who say, 'Come on. We tried it when we were younger and we turned out fine. So what's wrong?”

Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman: “What's wrong is look at the numbers – the emergency room admissions – look at the traffic fatalities – it's doubled. What are we willing to stand? I don't want to see Nebraska get like that. “

The same study shows traffic fatalities involving operators testing positive for marijuana in Colorado jumped 100% from 2007 to 2012.

From 2011 to 2013, emergency room visits related to marijuana increased 57%.

“Everyone today is comparing the marijuana of today to that of the 60's and 70's,” said Cheyenne County, Nebraska, Sheriff John Jenson. “You can't do that. They have nothing in common but the name. The THC level is so much higher in today's marijuana.”

The report also revealed the chemical compound in marijuana that causes the “high” has grown dramatically.

The average THC potency in marijuana stood at 4% in 1995. In 2013, it tripled to 12%.

“Marijuana is the gateway drug,” said Sheriff Jenson. “If you have marijuana coming in – you're going to start seeing meth. We saw huge numbers back to the days of when we had labs. We're seeing heroin for the first time in this end of the state.”

Andy Williams: “Just like anything, if people have a propensity for addiction or abuse – no matter what they do – is going to be a stepping stone for something else.”
Brian Mastre: “You think it's like alcohol?”
Andy Williams: “I do. I think it's better than alcohol. I know it is.”

In its first year, Colorado's pot industry racked up more than $700-million in revenue. A 10% sales tax and other fees added $76-million to Colorado's treasury.

Even so – lawmakers were forecasting much higher numbers.

Brian Mastre: “You yourself said you don't really partake in marijuana that often.”

Andy Williams, Medicine Man: “No, I don't.”

Brian Mastre: “I think some people would be surprised by that – you're the medicine man.”

Andy Williams: “I should be doing marijuana. It's like living in the Colorado and not skiing. I don't do either. I do marijuana recreationally a few times a year – but it's really a minimum.”

Brian Mastre: “You don't drink?”

Andy Williams: “I don't drink. I do cuss. Maybe that's one of my vices.”

Situated inside a Denver industrial park, Williams showed us his operation as a way to not only defend his industry, but educate the public. He's aware Nebraska is debating the merits of medical marijuana. Something Colorado started more than a decade ago.

Brian Mastre: “Nebraska doesn't have medical marijuana.”
Andy Williams: “It's a shame. I hear miracle stories all the time.”

The Bellevue, Nebraska, family of Will Gillen agrees.

“We call him God's Will – what we've nicknamed him,” said his father Dominic Gillen. “Will doesn't talk. He's never spoken a word. He wears diapers. He's at the cognitive level of a 18-month to 2-year-old. Over his 12-years, he has had thousands of seizures – probably 10's of thousands to be honest with you.“

Will's parents believe medical cannabis could help with his epileptic seizures. His seizures turn so violent, he must wear a helmet to keep from injuring himself.

The Gillen's are reluctant to leave Nebraska for Colorado or one of the other 23 states with medical marijuana laws. It's why they want to change policy here.

“We are Nebraskans,” said Dominic Gillen. “We live here. We don't believe we should become medical refugees to go to another state to get a treatment that's working.”

While acknowledging medical marijuana carries some health benefits to a small percent of the population, Nebraska's Attorney General believes the negatives outweigh the positives. Doug Peterson e calls it a “slippery slope” – where the potential for abuse is great. “The way you step into this industry is you don't go to the state right away and say let's go to recreational use. You do a medical marijuana statute, and you bring out some very sympathetic stories to get people to loosen their guard.”

“It makes me angry that we can' t look at the good things from the treatment,” said Dominic Gillen. “I think they hear the word marijuana and turn it off. They don't understand that there's a definite difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. They have this idea of a slippery slope. It's an idea that I don't agree with. Every step of the way I think the legislature has the opportunity to say no. If medical got in and someone wanted recreational, they can say no if that's what the constituency of Nebraska wants.”

While this 7th grader will never understand the debate, Will Gillen heads off to school like any other day. “He didn't choose to have the epilepsy that he has,” said his father. “As advocates for him, my wife and I, we're trying to be his voice to give us the opportunity to do something with our son that will have positive benefits for him....and help his quality of life. That's all we're asking for.”

Law enforcement is poised to take on marijuana from every angle – from to medical marijuana to the border enforcement of Colorado.

Some lawmakers have gone at it another way – considering easing the penalty of pot possession as a way to lighten the load on an overtaxed system.

Right now – for first offense – possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in Nebraska is like a speeding ticket and a $300 fine.

“We're convinced that those in the unicameral want to utilize the overcrowding in the Nebraska correctional system – that we need an excuse to ease up on these things – marijuana isn't as big of an issue as some other violent crimes – so therefore quit pushing this, you're overstating it,” said Attorney General Peterson.

Short of getting Colorado to stop the sale of recreational marijuana altogether, what is Nebraska's end game?

For those patrolling the Nebraska border, cooperation with Colorado would be a start.

“What can we do together?” asked Sheriff Jenson. “You help us enforce our state laws. The voters of Colorado decided what would happen in Colorado. They did not decide what happens in Nebraska.”

For the state's lead investigator – it's patience. He's asking Nebraska decision-makers, at the very least, to slow down the change machine. “Please wait 3-5 years and study Colorado. If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to say this doesn't have great social costs. But the fact of the matter is you have to wait to see what Colorado is doing.”

Both sides believe they will be on the right side of history.

“I can name a number of other things when people thought the status quo was going to win out over time – and guess what – they were proved wrong too,” said Andy Williams.