SEDGWICK, Colo. — 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 two 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 in the city of Sedgwick.
"More weed!" Ray squealed with glee.
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, Deuel County 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.
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.
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."
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 the pot shop in Sedgwick.
"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.
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 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.
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.