State

Colorado pot isn’t affecting Kansas like you think

The amount of marijuana being confiscated in Kansas appears to be dropping quickly. But the potency of the marijuana is increasing.
The amount of marijuana being confiscated in Kansas appears to be dropping quickly. But the potency of the marijuana is increasing. File photo

When Oklahoma and Nebraska filed a lawsuit in 2015 against Colorado for legalizing marijuana, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt wanted to see whether it was a problem before signing on.

He would need to prove that Kansas had suffered harm from Colorado marijuana to have a case.

But law enforcement was reporting fewer – not more – marijuana-related offenses. This was confusing to Schmidt, who said he’d heard from law enforcement that Colorado marijuana was king.

So he invoked a 19th-century law to survey law enforcement agencies. And he received a huge response: 390 law enforcement agencies and district attorneys painted the first large-scale picture of the impact of Colorado’s legalization on Kansas.

The early results suggest it is having a big impact, but it may not all be negative.

The amount of marijuana being confiscated appears to be dropping quickly. But the potency of the marijuana is increasing.

And for the first time, edible marijuana is being confiscated, which Schmidt worries could pose a greater public health concern for young users.

The 390 responses from across the state show that the legal system has been swept up by changing attitudes about marijuana. In some jurisdictions, law enforcement are no longer enforcing marijuana laws much, and even when they do, it has become difficult to win convictions. Users may receive a fine in one county, probation or jail in another and told to move along in others.

“The criminal justice system is moving in the direction of what appears to be changes in public attitude,” Schmidt said. “Obviously not moving as far as some people would like, but there is obviously an evolution or a change, and this showed that it has reached the enforcement level as well.”

Four states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – have legalized marijuana, and five states will vote on marijuana legalization this fall: California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.

This study shows legalization can have a large impact on neighboring states. In March, the Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma and Nebraska didn’t have legal standing to sue Colorado, so Kansas joining the lawsuit is off the table.

But Schmidt thinks there is harm being done. So although he’s still studying the new information, he hopes to decrease some of the health risks of more potent and easily digestible marijuana.

Doggone it, they have done something that federal law says they may not do, and it’s Kansans who are paying a price for that.

Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general

“Here you have our sister state – we love them, we get along great with them most of the time,” Schmidt said. “But doggone it, they have done something that federal law says they may not do, and it’s Kansans who are paying a price for that.”

Changing attitudes

District attorneys are finding it more difficult to get convictions for selling marijuana, according to responses in the survey.

“Cases that used to be amounts obvious for distribution are no longer obvious, because the defendant gets to argue that they went to the ‘Sam’s Club’ of marijuana in Colorado and were just buying in bulk,” according to the DA’s office in Kiowa County.

Cases that used to be amounts obvious for distribution are no longer obvious, because the defendant gets to argue that they went to the ‘Sam’s Club’ of marijuana in Colorado and were just buying in bulk.

District attorney’s office in Kiowa County

Some officers won’t issue citations for marijuana possession, according to the report.

“Our local deputies and sheriff tell me they stop at least five cars a day with personal-use marijuana inside and absolutely refuse to issue a citation or report for it,” according to the district attorney’s office in Clark County. “They simply confiscate it and send them on their way.”

In Anderson County, the sheriff’s office reported that the district attorney no longer brings charges for marijuana traces or paraphernalia.

Some juries are refusing to hand out marijuana convictions.

“I have had a number of potential jurors during voir dire opine their belief that marijuana should be legal,” according to the district attorney in Labette County. “Oddly enough, these statements were made in nonmarijuana cases.”

This is true for young and old, black and white, according to the district attorney in Leavenworth County. The elderly say it should be allowed for medicinal purposes, while young jurors tell the DA it’s “less serious than tobacco or alcohol, and they oppose the use of tax funds to prosecute marijuana cases.”

The DA in Douglas County said 90 percent of defendants use the Colorado excuse to argue for a plea deal.

I am repeatedly reminded by defense counsel that only 15 miles away, it is legal to possess marijuana.

Sherman County District Attorney’s Office

“I am repeatedly reminded by defense counsel that only 15 miles away, it is legal to possess marijuana,” according to the DA’s office in Sherman County.

Judges in Jackson and Ellis counties will encourage users to move to Colorado if they want to keep using, according to the district attorneys there. Some defendants also are asking to be released for their probation in Colorado, where they can smoke legally.

The DA in Leavenworth County was frustrated that a judge kept giving lenient sentences to marijuana offenders. The DA filed an appeal in one of those cases. But while the appeal was pending, the defendant “absconded to Colorado.”

Extra cost

It’s not just law enforcement attitudes that are changing, but their financial burdens.

The district attorney in Ellsworth County said they are being sent so many drug cases that the jail is optimistically at 108 percent capacity: “The on-going joke is that the highway patrol only stops every third car, eastbound.”

The Ellsworth DA doesn’t want to spend resources on Colorado dealers when the meth problem is worse. “We need our very limited jail space and male prison space to house violent offenders, sex criminals, meth head thieves and burglars, and sellers of opioid pills and Mexican brown heroin.”

In Saline County, the DA said he hesitates to charge cases from the highway patrol because of the cost of prosecuting someone who may live in another state.

Sherman County said it must divert funds from other policing efforts, including traffic and property crimes, in order to keep up with marijuana enforcement.

Kiowa County sheriff’s officers said that extra resources have been taken up trying to track down “juvenile runaways, who have absconded to Colorado for the sole purposes of purchasing and using marijuana legally.”

NIDA's Dr. Marilyn Huestis discusses new research, which used the most sophisticated driving simulator of its kind to mirror real-life situations. Results showed that marijuana use impairs one measure of driving performance.

Changing types of marijuana

No uniform standard exists for identifying Colorado marijuana or tracking it.

Many departments do not track where marijuana comes from, but others look at the packaging, interview suspects and analyze receipts in suspects’ pockets to identify the drug’s origin.

But law enforcement officers say they have noticed a change: Colorado pot is more potent than marijuana from Mexico.

“Marijuana coming from Colorado is dubbed as some of the best,” according to police in Liberal. “Users and dealers of the drug are impressed with the quality.

“The Liberal Police Department has had to make changes into our drug storage facility because of the overpowering strong odor that the Colorado marijuana has. A fan had to be installed to help with the stench.”

Although the problem is still relatively small, according to Schmidt, the issue of edibles has grown. The Kansas Highway Patrol reported that its seizure of marijuana edibles increased from zero in 2013 to more than 30 in 2015.

A few of these seizures were quite large, including one 17-pound seizure that included seven bottles of “Star Barz” THC chocolates, six containers of “Loves Oven” THC candies, six bottles of “Insta High” THC powder mix, two bottles of Peanut Brittle THC bites, four bottles of “Edipure” THC jellybeans, two boxes of THC “Awakening” mints and two containers of THC lemon drops.

Bourbon County has seized marijuana hot sauce, and Leawood police found marijuana lip balm. Russell County confiscated marijuana muffins and honey.

Instead of a stinky hand-rolled cigarette they now can simply ‘smoke’ cherry flavored water vapor, eat a gummy worm, or a bowl of cereal.

Augusta Department of Public Safety

“Instead of a stinky hand-rolled cigarette,” the Augusta Department of Public Safety said, “they now can simply ‘smoke’ cherry flavored water vapor, eat a gummy worm, or a bowl of cereal.”

Violence and health risks

The cost of marijuana has increased, according to several departments, which suspect it is increasing the risk for violence.

Larned police reported finding the diary of a suicide victim who owed money to a Colorado drug dealer and had Colorado weed in the refrigerator. Olathe police said that burglars murdered a man because they believed he was returning from Colorado with marijuana.

In Lyons, a woman high on meth and marijuana, with marijuana candy from Colorado in her car, “hit a gas pump at the Kaps Store,” according to police

Lyon County, which reported one of the highest rates of Colorado marijuana seizures, said it is seeing more people using meth and marijuana in tandem: meth in the morning and marijuana to sleep.

Marijuana’s effects can vary from person to person, and scientists are not quite sure what to make of the common distinction users and growers make between cannabis sativa and cannabis indica.

How widespread is pot?

When Colorado legalized marijuana, many feared it would increase the amount flowing into Kansas. Early data suggest the opposite. The Kansas Highway Patrol reported that the number of marijuana stops has gone down since marijuana was legalized in 2014. And the amount of marijuana seized has decreased by almost half.

Many other law enforcement agents who reported on behalf of the whole department said that their information was based on memories of their own work, rumors they’d heard on the street or sometimes from talking with one or two law enforcement officers. A few departments reported only large drug busts, while others reported even small encounters.

The reports they did give indicated that the spread of Colorado marijuana has been uneven.

In Pawnee County, the sheriff’s office said marijuana has always been available and that little has changed. Overland Park police said Colorado marijuana accounts for only 1 percent of drug arrests, while Ottawa police said it was less than 5 percent. Hamilton County, which borders Colorado, hasn’t seen an impact, according to police.

Bourbon County has seized marijuana hot sauce, and Leawood police found marijuana lip balm. Russell County confiscated marijuana muffins and honey.

About 75 percent of Kansas cities and counties reported seizing Colorado marijuana fewer than five times between 2014 and 2015. A majority of them – mostly smaller cities and counties – said they had not seen any Colorado marijuana at all.

But in the larger towns and cities, police reported more. Wichita police reported confiscating more than 55 pounds of Colorado marijuana from dealers alone and seizing $294,770 in cash destined for Colorado. They just missed a huge $680,000 seizure.

Law enforcement in limbo

It’s difficult to have a consistent legal response, several agencies said, when some of the people they rely on to enforce the laws want to return to an era of stricter enforcement, while others are preparing for a future of legalization.

A representative for the Augusta Department of Public Safety thinks Kansas should start preparing now for legalization. “The legalization of marijuana in some form is probably coming to Kansas eventually. ... Hopefully if/when Kansas adopts new laws on this, we can skip a lot of the problems by learning from other’s mistakes.”

But a representative from the Larned police thinks police need to change people’s minds rather than change their enforcement: “Those of us in this profession know it is a gateway drug, and it should be viewed and enforced as such.”

For the time being, Schmidt said, law enforcement needs to use discretion and consider factors such as cost. But they also need to be consistent.

“We all need to enforce the law as written,” Schmidt said. “But there is a real policy debate on what the law should be.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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