Nebraska Pot Busts Up Near CO Border: Are Police Policy Changes the Reason?

In recent years, Nebraska law enforcers such as Deuel County, Nebraska, Sheriff Adam Hayward have grumbled about the increase in marijuana-related arrests in their jurisdictions after Colorado's legalization of limited recreational cannabis sales in January 2014 and the resultant strain on resources because of the rising costs of stopping pot from crossing into the state.

Such gripes were a major factor in a complaint that Nebraska and Oklahoma filed with the U.S. Supreme Court against Amendment 64, the centerpiece of Colorado's marijuana reform laws. And even after the Supremes declined to hear the case, these two states didn't surrender. Rather, they joined a lawsuit filed by dozens of sheriffs in Colorado and beyond.

Now, a new study by the University of Nebraska-Omaha's Nebraska Center for Justice Research provides data to support the contention that marijuana arrests have indeed increased significantly in Nebraska — 11 percent in 2014 as compared to the year before.

Moreover, the numbers are most elevated in counties that border Colorado.

We've included the study below, along with a previous report that analyzes marijuana arrests and the like between 2000 (when Colorado legalized medical marijuana) and 2013.

Still unclear, however, is whether this increase comes as a result of more offenders or a greater emphasis on marijuana by police agencies in these areas.

Here's a breakdown of major findings from the most recent study.
1) The rate of marijuana arrests decreased in 37 counties (39.8%), remained the same in 9 counties (9.7%), and increased in 47 counties (50.5%); overall, the rate of marijuana arrests increased in Nebraska (4.10 to 4.55 arrests per 1,000 residents)

2) The rate of marijuana arrests in Nebraska grew by 11% in 2014 compared to 2013

3) Deuel County had the highest rate of marijuana arrests in 2013 and 2014; I-76 (from Colorado) enters Nebraska in Deuel County, which is the theoretical entry point for marijuana traveling along the interstate from Colorado

4) Regarding Nebraska’s most populous counties, Douglas County experienced a reduction in the rate of marijuana arrests; Lancaster county, meanwhile, experienced a significant increase

5) Banner County had the largest increase in the rate of marijuana arrests in 2014 relative to 2013; Deuel County had the most notable reduction

6) The map depicting the 2014 rate in marijuana arrests clearly shows that counties along the border, in the panhandle, and along I-80 had the highest rates of marijuana arrests

7) The rate of possession arrests increased in border, panhandle, and I-80 counties but decreased in the remainder of the counties in Nebraska from 2013 to 2014; overall, the rate of possession arrests increased in Nebraska during this time

8) The rate of marijuana sale arrests more than doubled in border and panhandle counties while I-80 and comparison counties experienced smaller increases; overall, the rate of sale arrests per 1000 residents is very low (<1.28), and 10 increased slightly across the state
The increases are particularly acute when it comes to possession arrests, as opposed to those that have to do with distribution or cultivation.

Here's a chart showing the raw possession arrest data from 2009 to 2014, with categories for border counties, those along Nebraska's panhandle and ones that incorporate sections of Interstate 80, the major route from Colorado.

Arrest info is depicted graphically in this image. Note that counties with increased arrest numbers are seen in green.

Another graphic changes the color scheme to dramatize counties with the most marijuana arrests. The darker the hue, the more people busted for marijuana offenses, with the darkest colors standing for arrests of five people or more.

As for the reason behind these results, the study largely leaves them unaddressed prior to the "Notes, Acknowledgements & Comments" section.

Under the heading "General Comments and Upcoming Research," the study states that "our results...showed that measures of local and state law enforcement were not a significant contributing factor to the number of marijuana arrests and jail admissions in 2013, but were in 2014. In addition, counties that had more local police officers in 2014, and had a greater proportion of arrests made by the state patrol in 2014, experienced a significant and positive change in the rate of marijuana-related arrests.

"Thus, we did find that western Nebraska counties experienced an increase in the rate of marijuana arrests in 2014 compared to 2013, which supports officials’ claims," the explanation continues. "But because our law enforcement controls appeared to be a significant contributing factor to this increase, it is difficult to determine whether these increases can fully be attributed to policy changes in Colorado rather than the result of stepped up efforts on the part of Nebraska law enforcement."

Not that the study criticizes these expenditures as wasteful and unnecessary. To the contrary, the admission directly above follows a strong statement about the need to keep Colorado marijuana out of Nebraska.

Why? The kids.

"States need to protect their young people from the impact of mind altering drugs (both legal and illegal) because their brains are still developing and can be permanently altered by drugs like alcohol and marijuana that are ranked on the lower end of the risk spectrum for adults," the study's authors write. "This leaves two primary choices for state policy: 1) protection through prohibition and law enforcement sans marijuana taxation or 2) protection through regulation and public health campaigns funded via marijuana taxation. Because our young people are our greatest resource and vastly too important to be put at risk by arguments based on rhetoric, rather than data and science, all states should focus sharp attention on use and abuse of marijuana by minors in legalization states versus prohibition states in order to make the soundest policy decisions for the next generation."

Here's the most recent University of Nebraska-Omaha study, followed by the one that preceded it.

Marijuana Enforcement in Nebraska (2009-2014)

Effects of Colorado Marijuana Legalization on Nebraska.pdf

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts