by Tim Linscott
Perkins County Sheriff Jim Brueggeman looked at his computer screen, looking up the number of marijuana possession cases in Perkins County in recent months.
As he rubbed his forehead with indignation, he said, “Wow.”
Since Colorado passed the legalization of medical marijuana in 2012 and effective Jan. 1, 2014, the legalization of marijuana to anyone over 21, Brueggeman has seen an upswing in cases involving the drug.
Prior to the passing of Amendment 64, the measure voted on by Colorado citizens, Brueggeman noted there would be a possession of marijuana case in the county once every three months. Now, he explains there is one to two cases each month.
“For a long time, when we stopped people and found marijuana, since Colorado passed the medical marijuana laws, it has been a pretty frequent occurrence that people will hand us a medical marijuana card,” Brueggeman said, adding that since possession in Nebraska is illegal, the marijuana, drug paraphernalia and medical card are all confiscated.
Perkins County Attorney Rick Roberts agreed with the nonchalant attitude of some people from Colorado when it pertains to drug cases in Nebraska.
“I think what we are seeing is people from Colorado either don’t know or don’t care that Nebraska law is different,” Roberts said. “They think, ‘Well, I am from Colorado and it is legal here,’ and they bring it with them.”
Roberts said many of the cases are people passing through the county and felt many of the other states that border Colorado are likely seeing the same issue.
Once the case is processed, the medical marijuana cards have been requested to be returned by attorneys whose clients had them confiscated.
The charges have steadily risen since the passage of recreational marijuana use legalized in Colorado for anyone over 21.
Roberts notes that the first offense for possession of marijuana is a $300 fine. No points are lost on a driver’s license for possession.
With a second and third offense, Roberts said he will push for the maximum penalty every time.
“I will ask the court to impose the maximum penalty and I think the court probably would,” Roberts said.
Roberts would like to see ‘more teeth’ in a first offense for possession of marijuana, other than simply a fine.
“I don’t know if a fine really accomplishes what we are trying to do, which is not have it in their possession and not use it in the first place,” Roberts said. “It is like a real expensive traffic ticket.”
There have been some cases of people from Nebraska going into Colorado to purchase marijuana and trying to get back across state lines. The major challenge for Brueggeman and his deputies comes from Colorado residents that may not know, or care, that marijuana possession is illegal in Nebraska.
“We are running into this very frequently with Colorado people, more so than before, where it is almost like they have no regard for the fact Nebraska doesn’t allow marijuana here,” Brueggeman. “It is like they have no fear of crossing the state line with it because they can legally posses it there.”
Deuel County has also seen an upturn in drug possession cases with the new Colorado laws. (See next week’s “Area Counties share dilemmas”)
The larger issue Brueggeman sees in Perkins County is the time frame that he and his deputies patrol the highways in the county. With the upswing in cases so prevalent in the county and the time the sheriff’s office patrols, Brueggeman feels there must be several instances of people traveling freely through the county without getting caught.
“Unfortunately, traffic is not our number one priority here as we have so many duties that we can’t devote a guy all day and not to stop people and do drug interdictions,” Brueggeman said. “We have to fit traffic enforcement into our schedules, so we can’t devote 100 percent to fighting this battle.”
Brueggeman said the state patrol has also been helping with traffic stops.
“We know we are not catching it all because it is so prevalent and we know that we are not catching everything coming into the county,” Brueggeman said. “We know there are people bringing it into their homes and we deal with those people but we just can’t break down every door to see if people have that stuff. We have to play by the rules.”
Safety is now an issue with traffic stops as Brueggeman has noted that recent stops by officers have discovered methamphetamine, guns and even a homemade pipe bomb.
Traffic stops for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is no longer deputies checking for alcohol in the system of a driver.
Brueggeman noted that checking for drugs in a person’s system requires different testing and the use of a drug recognition expert to help with certain DUI cases. Brueggeman predicts the need for future use of the drug recognition expert and testing methods in the county because of the Colorado marijuana law.
“It is so concerning that it has become so prevalent,” Brueggeman said. “Every chance we get to do drug interdiction on the highway or every opportunity we have to work a case in the county on stopping drugs, we work those cases.”
Many of the cases processed in Perkins County have been for small amounts, less than one ounce, of marijuana, which Brueggeman said is generally for personal use. He worries, however, that Nebraska residents may be going to Colorado, buying personal use quantities at several dispensaries and coming back to re-sell the drug.
According to Colorado law, adults 21 and over who are not Colorado citizens, can purchase up to a quarter of an ounce of marijuana per transaction.
There are more than two dozen shops for recreational marijuana use now open in Colorado. State law dictates that recreational marijuana use is limited to Colorado citizens possessing only an ounce of marijuana at a time. However, state law does not require the businesses to monitor or track customer purchases. Therefore, a tourist, or Colorado citizen, could travel around purchasing over the legal possession limit to re-sell, commonly called ‘smurfing.’
“I believe this is happening,” Brueggeman said of the practice of stockpiling up marijuana from Colorado and re-selling it in Nebraska.
He points to a case in December, 2013 in the county where a vehicle was stopped and the subjects were in Colorado purchasing marijuana to re-sell in the area.
“They were collecting small quantities and repackaging it for re-sale,” Brueggeman said.
“If law enforcement sees a drastic increase in these cases, we will get together with Jim (Brueggeman) and the state patrol and find another way of addressing it,” Roberts said. “If it gets to be a real dramatic upsurge, beyond our local law enforcement, we will get the state patrol involved.”
Roberts explained if the cases come across his desk, those individuals will be prosecuted.
Possession, in any amount, is illegal in Nebraska and Brueggeman notes that it is ‘simply unacceptable.’
“It is still illegal here. We will continue to enforce the laws on the books here in Nebraska,” Brueggeman said. “We are very proactive about not having drugs in this county. We will continue to be proactive.”
Perkins County Sheriff’s office deputies have received additional drug interdiction training to help combat the issue of marijuana in the county.
Helping in the fight to enforce those laws in the county means relying on the public. Brueggeman said with the number of staff and resources available in the county, the sheriff’s office can’t be everywhere at once and asks county citizens to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior.