Pot causes Colorado’s neighbors’ costs to rise

By Marc Fisher / The Washington Post

Published Jul 28, 2014 at 12:03AM

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 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 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, Kansas, 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 of 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, Nebraska, 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.

Not far away, in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, 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 OK 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.

Tiny town looks to pot

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’ weed shop, Sedgwick Alternative Relief.

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’ 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 Pena-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’ 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.”

Border issues

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.

Hayward and 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 donut shop, and you start thinking, ‘This can’t be too bad.’”

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.”

Chicago entrepreneur

Mike Kollarits needed a fresh start, and Colorado offered a frontier. His construction and snow-plowing 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. 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.

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 and 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.

Some of Kollarits’ 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.”