At Colorado’s borders, a dividing line over marijuana

The legal marijuana market in Colorado has created a bonanza for “green entrepreneurs” and tax collectors in the state. At the same time, it has put pressure on budgets in neighboring states. Post TV takes you to rural Colorado to experience how legal marijuana is affecting communities. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

An old man with a snow-white beard bounded into the double-wide trailer that houses the only pot shop in eastern Colorado. He wore bib overalls over a white T-shirt, and a huge grin. He was a farmer from Nebraska, and he was 78 years old. “How much can I get for $100?” he asked.

Ray — no last name, he said nervously — bought a couple of grams, went across the street to show his wife what he’d scored, and scurried back to the sales counter.

“Forget something?” asked the clerk, a schoolteacher who is spending the summer selling marijuana.

“More weed!” Ray squealed with glee.

He’s been smoking since he was 12, “and I will till the day I die,” he said, and now Ray was about to get back in his truck and drive his first legal purchase 322 miles east, back to his Nebraska farm. The trip would make him a criminal, because although recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado this year, it most assuredly is not on the other side of the state line.

In Goodland, Kan., 20 miles from Colorado, four of the 18 men in Sheriff Burton Pianalto’s jail are there because they brought marijuana across the state line. By the end of April, Pianalto already had spent half his meals budget for the year. He’s not sure how he’ll pay for enough Lean Cuisine boxes to make it to December. It runs him $45 a day to house some kid from Minnesota or Illinois who bought weed legally in Colorado and started driving it back east on Interstate 70 to sell to friends.

In Chappell, Neb., 13 miles from the marijuana store in Sedgwick, Sheriff Adam Hayward has blown through his overtime budget and increased his jail spending threefold in three years — almost entirely because of increased marijuana arrests.


Map: Colorado retail marijuana outlets

Not far away, in Scotts Bluff County, Neb., Sheriff Mark Overman says Colorado is exporting trouble to its neighbors. “They’re promoting marijuana tourism,” he said. “The message is: Come to Colorado, smoke the marijuana. Then people bring some home. We don’t go after it — we don’t have anybody sitting on the border — but this Colorado marijuana is very potent, very aromatic, and we often trip over it if somebody’s speeding and we pull them over.”

State lines can be symbols of divisions over values and cultures. Abortions were once legal in some states but not in others. Fireworks are okay on one side of some state borders but verboten just a mile away. Laws governing liquor sales vary widely by state. So it should be no shock that as attitudes toward marijuana have shifted, fault lines have appeared along state boundaries.

On the Great Plains east of the Rockies, a three-hour drive from Denver’s profusion of pot shops — 340 medical and recreational at last count — Colorado’s bold social experiment is confounding parents who have to explain to their children why this alluring but troubling substance is legal just down the road, a state line — and a cultural divide — away.

The same policy decisions that liberated pot smokers in Colorado are filling tiny rural jails in Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. “Every time we stop somebody, that’s taking up my deputy’s time with your Colorado pot,” Overman said. “We have to pay overtime, pay the prosecutor, pay to incarcerate them, pay for their defense if they’re indigent. Colorado’s taxing it, but everybody else is paying the price.”

When the wind is right, Sedgwick’s entire downtown — all one block of it — reeks of weed, a sign that fresh tax revenue is growing in the rear of the trailer that houses Mike Kollarits’s weed shop, Sedgwick Alternative Relief.


Mike Kollarits, owner of Sedgwick Alternative Relief, poses for a portrait in Sedgwick, Colo., on July 2. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

When Kollarits finishes renovating the old grocery store on Main Avenue in a couple of months, the second-biggest building in town, empty for a generation, will become a sprawling marijuana emporium with a sleek new glass front. Then he’ll remove the trailer and put up three greenhouses, where his product will grow. By the time he’s done, Kollarits’s operations will take up as much space as all the other businesses in town combined.

Kollarits, 45, who built houses in the Chicago suburbs until the recession sucked the life out of that endeavor, bought his property in Sedgwick from Lupe Peña-Casias. Casias owns the bank building across the street, a grand old pile of stone that she has lovingly converted into a bed and breakfast with 15 lace-drenched rooms and the only Mexican buffet within an hour’s drive. Rooms go for $25 a night, cash only.

Casias was one of the first people in Sedgwick who saw gold in weed. Then on the town board, Casias has long believed that Sedgwick — 147 residents, a bar and a hair salon — could flourish once more. The town, long an outlier in a region of conservative farmers and hunters, is home to a small colony of Buddhists, descendants of Japanese immigrants who helped build the transcontinental railroad, and left-leaning refugees from the Denver area.

In the 19th century, Sedgwick County was a crossroads for cowboys and Indians, known for its raucous saloons and gambling houses. But in 2012, when Coloradans voted 55 percent to 45 percent to legalize recreational marijuana (the state had approved medical marijuana in 2000), Sedgwick County voted 797 to 522 to reject the idea.

The tiny town of Sedgwick, burdened by a $28,000 deficit and a microscopic tax base, had a different idea. Once pot became legal statewide, each Colorado municipality could decide whether to join the experiment. In April, at a special town meeting, residents voted 27 to 4 to allow recreational pot sales, with a $5-per-transaction fee going to the town.

“I’m really straight-laced,” said Casias, 60, who spent most of her career teaching English to Spanish-speaking schoolchildren. “But we’re a rebellious little town, and we had no money to pave the street or buy a new grader. We lost our school. Our post office is down to half-time. We were just dying. I just thought we had to do something, even though I don’t smoke marijuana — never have.”

Casias now has plans to renovate one of her buildings to open a munchies shop across from the weed store. Still, there are times when she feels a bit wary.

“I built a wall between my living room and the front of the inn because I am a little worried about strangers coming in now,” she said. “Maybe I should put a lock on the front door. I don’t know. But the amount of money the pot people are spending here is amazing. Sedgwick is going to be big, you’ll see.”

“Oh, please.” That’s the former sheriff of Sedgwick County, Rick Ingwersen, who happens to be Casias’s new boyfriend and has just walked into the inn for a glass of apple-cranberry juice. Ingwersen, grumbling about people he once put in jail on marijuana charges who’ve become legal pot entrepreneurs, isn’t exactly bullish on Sedgwick’s weed-based renaissance. But as one of the town’s biggest property owners, he now sees the situation from both sides.

“I’ve got too many boarded-up buildings,” he said. Then a chuckle: “I’ve been waiting patiently for weed to come in and save the town.” He bought properties in the 1980s, when talk of legalizing casino gambling brought a momentary burst of optimism to Sedgwick. But gambling never arrived. The town kept sliding.

Marijuana, which grows wild on many farms in the area — locals call it ditch weed — “is a way of life around here, sure, but it’s going to backfire in time,” Ingwersen said. “Everybody else around here is too willing to roll over. I think I’ll stick around and fight for a while.”


Locals hang out in RD’s bar in Sedgwick, Colo., on July 1. The bar, one of the few businesses along Main Avenue, is a watering hole for residents. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Whereupon he and Casias took to RD’s, Sedgwick’s bar, two doors down from the pot shop and the only place in town where people are out and about after dark. The watering hole, dim and dank, serves beer — low-alcohol beer. Sedgwick might be okay with pot, but full-strength suds aren’t allowed here.

In the first four months of this first year of recreational marijuana sales, Colorado collected $11 million in taxes, and $7 million more from sales of medical pot. The money goes to build schools and help localities. But not a penny made it to Deuel County, because Deuel is just north of the state line, in Nebraska.

It’s close enough that Cori Koehler’s kids could ride their bikes over to Sedgwick’s pot shop.

“Really, any kid that wants it could almost walk there,” she said. Koehler, 34, owns a hair salon on the main street in Chappell, Deuel County’s seat. Since marijuana became legal across the line, she’s seen the drug busts out on Interstate 80, people handcuffed and standing in the ditches along the Nebraska roadbed.

“I watch ‘Intervention’ and all those drug shows on TV, and it’s interesting, but I don’t want that coming here,” Koehler said. Her children are still little, “but we play Pee Wee ball over there in Sedgwick, and they’re going to see weed or hear about it, and then they’re going to ask what that is and they’ll be curious. Why do I need to have to get into that? My oldest, he’s 13, and when you’re 13, you should not know about those things.”

It is for people such as Koehler that Sheriff Hayward wants to get something done about the clash of laws at the state line. His three deputies have always made weed busts, but the number and character have changed markedly this year. Officers arrested 30 drivers on felony marijuana charges last year, all out on the highway (just 1,800 people live in the county); this year, there were already 32 such arrests through June.


In Chappell, Neb., Deuel County Sheriff Adam Hayward shows off a selection of confiscated marijuana items used to educate teachers about the clever packaging of the product. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Last year, county deputies made 15 arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana. This year, 12 already, triple the number of arrests for drunken driving.

The marijuana they seize now is almost entirely from Colorado — the packages often still have the labels of Denver pot shops (“Grown in Colorado / Always Buy Colorado”) — rather than from Mexican cartels. Colorado’s weed is now the heart of the black market in neighboring states, authorities say.

Sheriffs in Kansas and Nebraska say they could make far more pot arrests than they do. Hayward’s officers patrol the interstate only about five hours a week. Even then, they say, they aren’t making any special effort to sniff out Colorado pot.

“Why you would drive 90 when you’re carrying bags full of weed is beyond me, but people do,” Hayward said.

Joel Jay, the only defense lawyer in Deuel County, has found that many people who bring marijuana back into Nebraska are buying it mainly because it’s available.

“They don’t think of themselves as committing a crime,” he said. “Obviously they know it’s illegal here, because otherwise why did you go to Colorado? But after a few days there, you sort of lose perspective. It’s right next to the doughnut shop, and you start thinking, ‘This can’t be too bad.’ ”

Marijuana is becoming a constant in Jay’s work, and not just in possession arrests on the highway. In juvenile court one day this month, he and the judge struggled to figure out whether Nebraska should take custody of a child whose parents had been ordered not to use illegal drugs. The parents had moved to Colorado, where they were smoking marijuana — legal there, but a violation of the judge’s orders in Nebraska.


Hayward, like other sheriffs in states bordering Colorado, is stretching his budget to care for the larger number of people arrested while carrying Colorado pot. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

“Why you would drive 90 when you’re carrying bags full of weed is beyond me, but people do,” Hayward said. He says some pot buyers lose their perspective in Colorado. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Unlike its Plains neighbors, Nebraska was part of the 1970s wave of 11 states that decriminalized possession of small amounts of weed. People found with less than an ounce get a ticket and face a fine of up to $300. But Nebraska’s law couldn’t have anticipated the market that would develop in Colorado, where hugely popular marijuana-infused chocolate bars weigh enough that someone caught in Nebraska with a couple of candies easily tops the one-pound threshold that triggers a charge of intent to distribute, a felony.

A couple of weeks ago, Hayward’s deputies stopped a car in which three men were found with three ounces of marijuana buds and an 18-ounce bottle of cannabis-based hand lotion. With just the buds, the travelers would have gotten off with a ticket. But the lotion — which contains small amounts of THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects — weighed more than a pound, so the sheriff could have charged them with felony intent to distribute and locked them up.

“I cut them a break because it was lotion, and just wrote it as a misdemeanor,” the sheriff said. “I can’t afford to fill the jail with these cases.”

Hayward, 34, wants Nebraska to raise fines for possessing an ounce or more of marijuana, but politicians have shown little interest in the idea. He and other sheriffs along the border also want Colorado to help pay the added costs of enforcing marijuana laws.

One Colorado legislator, state Rep. Amy Stephens, a Republican who opposed legalization, agrees that her state owes its neighbors some recompense. She proposed dedicating part of the tax flow from pot sales to help those states cover enforcement costs.

Her bill went nowhere.

“But we need to have this discussion,” Stephens said. “We rushed into this so quickly that we didn’t think about the impact of edibles or the safety of children, or the impact on our neighbors.”

Even Colorado sheriffs who agree with Stephens that legal weed was a bad idea are not keen on sending money across state lines. “We’re seeing substantially more impaired drivers here, too,” said Sedgwick County Sheriff Randy Peck, “and we need to pay for that enforcement here before we think about other states.”

Minutes from Colorado, a frozen-food delivery man backed his truck up to the Sherman County, Kan., jail garage, which doubles as the prisoners’ recreation room. Every stack of TV dinners represents another blow to Sheriff Pianalto’s budget. Legalized marijuana has meant a doubling of possession arrests in this county of 6,000 people.


Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pianalto responds to a medical emergency. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Pianalto, 51, has seen marijuana use derail promising teens, but he’s also been moved by stories of the relief that weed provides to some cancer patients.

“Look, I know prohibition doesn’t work,” he said. “But I also know freewheeling, letting everyone do what they want, doesn’t work, either. I don’t know the answer. The problem is that now I talk to the kids in schools about marijuana and they just blow me off. I had a third-grader last month start arguing with me, saying it doesn’t hurt anything. He was using the same slogans he saw on the Colorado TV ads for legalization.”

Mike Kollarits needed a fresh start, and Colorado offered a frontier. His construction and snowplowing businesses in Chicago were laid low by the recession, and a buddy told Kollarits about the booming medical marijuana business around Denver.

Four years ago, Kollarits, his wife, and their two teenage boys made the move. Kollarits hadn’t smoked pot since he was 26; his wife — who asked not to be named because she is a special education teacher whose employer might disapprove of her selling weed during school breaks — had never been into marijuana.

Their medical pot shop in a Denver suburb got off to a strong start, attracting a mostly older crowd. When they heard customers talk about using marijuana to wean themselves off addictive prescription pain pills, the couple came to believe that they were not just making a very good living but that they also were actually doing some good.

Then Kollarits heard about Sedgwick and the chance to invest in the only pot shop in the eastern half of the state. Situated between two interstate highways that feed 15,000 cars into Colorado every day, Sedgwick “had everything except social interaction,” Kollarits said. To say the town is quiet wouldn’t be quite right; cows low through the night, and the doves’ cooing makes certain that most people get an early start. This is not Chicago.

Kollarits has been too busy to mind the isolation. He spends at least half his time in the hamlet, building the new store, staffing the trailer. He’s hired seven people — including two retired women from Denver who are Buddhists, love weed and delight in being called “the pot ladies” when they visit the diner out by the interstate. Kollarits expects to double his staff this fall. He’s on track to quadruple the town’s tax revenue.

But in a town where the arrival of a stranger at the bar is an occasion for an extended group stare, Kollarits had to allay some fears.


Sedgwick Alternative Relief, at left, is on Main Avenue in Sedgwick, Colo. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Sedgwick County Commissioner Glen Sundquist, for example, worries that the shop will tarnish the area’s reputation. “A lot of people around here don’t change their minds,” he said. But when Sundquist’s sister was dying of cancer, someone brought her marijuana-laced cookies; she never did eat them, but he thought it might not have been so bad if she had. Still, having the pot shop seems wrong: “People say it’s getting more accepted, but just because somebody else does something doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Some of Kollarits’s new neighbors “think marijuana destroys lives, and they were clear about that,” the merchant said. “But I’m a businessman with a family. I grew up in the Baptist church. People were surprised that I’m not a stoner or an inveterate drug dealer. Individual by individual, there’s a sea change in attitude. Now they come up to me at the bar and ask how it’s going.”

He’s had customers from all 50 states; well more than half are 50 or older. His first customers were a retired couple from Iowa who asked if they could get an AARP discount (sorry, no). About a third of his buyers come from Nebraska, and nearly two-thirds are from out of state.

But he insists that “my goal is not to sell to Nebraskans. Our goal is to catch all the people coming to Colorado from New York or Chicago.”

A woman in Sedgwick complained to Kollarits that “I don’t want my kids thinking marijuana is what saved this town.”

The shopkeeper was unapologetic. “It used to be illegal,” he told her. “Now it isn’t. That’s the way things work.”

State Penalties for possession of marijuana
Colorado
  • One ounce: legal for adults over 21.
  • One to two ounces: misdemeanor unless user has a medical marijuana card.
  • More than two ounces: felony with penalties ranging upwards from two years in prison.
Kansas
  • Possession of any amount of marijuana is a crime.
  • First offense: misdemeanor with penalties of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
  • Second offense: felony with penalties of up to 3.5 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Nebraska
  • Possession of up to one ounce of marijuana was decriminalized in 1979.
  • First-time offender: no arrest, but receives a citation and fine of $300, and can be assigned to a drug education class.
  • Second-time offender: $400 fine and up to five days in jail.
  • More than one ounce: arrest, can be charged with misdemeanor.
  • More than one pound: felony with penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Kollarits understands that some parents across the state line accuse him of complicating their lives. “But if they’re talking to their kids sooner, that’s a good thing,” he said. “In my house, we told them everything. Now, I know my 19-year-old smokes weed. He told me. But we have rules — no smoking in my house. Every parent should have rules.”

Last month, Kollarits drove over to Nebraska to see Hayward, the sheriff. They spoke for an hour and a half, largely past each other. Kollarits told the sheriff he’s aiming at people coming into Colorado, not people leaving the state. Hayward wasn’t impressed. Whether the buyers are coming or going, the shop in Sedgwick is aimed at out-of-staters, and that’s not right, he said.

The sheriff agreed that the weed he’s been confiscating is mostly from the Denver area; Hayward’s deputies have arrested only one person with marijuana from Sedgwick.

It wouldn’t make sense for anyone to come to Sedgwick to stock up for resale back home, Kollarits said: “The truth is, you can buy illicit marijuana anywhere in the United States cheaper than what I sell.”

But he is unabashed about his desire to capi­tal­ize on his location. “We’re going to be the next Amsterdam,” he said. “Being the first store you hit in Colorado is our business model.”

That’s what galls the sheriff: “It’s all about the money, I get that. That guy’s brought jobs to the community, and now they have a tax base. But he’s getting people from Nebraska and states east of us. He takes four hours off their trip to Denver, and they’re getting caught when they didn’t set out to be criminals. What they’re doing in Sedgwick, really, is selling out kids’ futures.”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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