It’s no secret that Nebraskans like to get high.
Nebraska law enforcement has acknowledged marijuana’s budding support among the public.
Set between increasing tolerant views of the drug, Nebraska law enforcement officials have worked along a tight line of more liberal punishment policies with comparatively stricter enforcement practices.
“Nebraska was probably at the forefront of recognizing they needed to make a distinction between simple marijuana possession and use, versus people who either possess much more hazardous type drugs and those who are selling it,” said Capt. Chris Peterson, leader of the Lincoln/Lancaster County Narcotics Taskforce.
In 1979, Nebraska became one of a handful of states to first decriminalize marijuana, meaning that no prison time or criminal record is given for a first-offense possession of a small amount of marijuana used for personal consumption. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize cannabis in 1973, with Colorado, Alaska, Ohio and California in 1975, followed by North Carolina, New York, Maine and Minnesota.
Nebraskan’s overall attitudes of the drug have also changed over the past two decades, said Tom Casady, Lincoln’s public safety director.
This has also reflected a national trend. Last year, a Pew Research Center poll found that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana for the first time since the center began polling on the issue in 1969. Overall support for legalization was favored by 52 percent of Americans — a 7 percent increase from the previous two years.
“There’s not as much social reprobation now,” Casady said.
According to Nebraska law, a first offense for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana counts only as an infraction, with no jail time and a maximum fine of $300. A judge may also order the offender to complete a drug education course. Other Schedule I drugs - such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines - are felonies for possession as well as felonies to sell.
Twenty-five other states, such as Oklahoma, still enforce stiff penalties. Under Oklahoma law, a first offense possession of any amount of marijuana will lead to jail time.
Nebraska counts a second and third offense as a misdemeanor, with possible jail time of five and seven days, with a maximum fine of $400 or $500. Nebraska does not count marijuana possession as a felony, unless the amount weighs more than one pound. Under Oklahoma law, any secondary offense is a felony, with a possible sentence of two -10 years in prison.
Nebraska law, however, does not particularly look kindly on marijuana possession, as it remains a highly enforced throughout Nebraska.
In fact, according to a 2010 American Civil Liberties Union report, based on statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s annual report, Nebraska ranked No. 13 among states -including the District of Columbia - that spend the most per capita on enforcement for marijuana possession. This is about $13 million for Nebraska, with D.C. at No. 1 with $44 million per capita. Seventy-three percent of all drug arrests in Nebraska were for marijuana possession.
Likewise, in 2010, Nebraska ranked third in the nation of states (including the District of Columbia), with the highest overall marijuana possession arrest rates at 417 per 100,000 people in contrast to the national average of 256.
In 2010, Lincoln Police Department issued 1,191 marijuana possession citations. By 2014, that number increased by more than 40 percent to 1,695 citations, the highest since 2000. A similar trend occurred among University of Nebraska-Lincoln students in that same time period. In 2010, 49 students were issued marijuana possession citations. In 2014, that number increased by almost 75 percent to 86 student-issued citations.
One possible factor may be the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, but Casady said Nebraska’s overall attitude toward the drug has been changing over the past two decades.
Casady said a majority of marijuana citations are given out along with other law violations. A majority of marijuana citations, he said, happen during traffic violations. An exception, which Casady said rarely happens, would be a search for growing operations.
“There’s not a big priority to go out and look for it,” Casady said.
Over his 13 years with the narcotics unit, which operates as an interagency collaboration between LPD, the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office and the UNL Police Department, Peterson said the largest change he has seen is the type of marijuana that is being seized. He said they are seeing Colorado marijuana become more prevalent.
“The marijuana available today is more of a medical or higher grade marijuana, which tends to have a higher THC content,” Peterson said. “For that reason, we’ve also seen it become more expensive in some places.”
Marijuana’s availability, as well as the number of dealers, has remained constant, however. Compared to other illicit drugs in the Lincoln area, which are often prone to high fluctuations in availability and cost, Peterson said marijuana has remained a stable factor, mostly because of its relatively stable supply.
“Marijuana has always been a constant here,” Peterson said. “It’s also a drug that tends to span most every age range, educational background and socioeconomic class.”
Peterson said the narcotics unit investigates drugs on the basis of public safety and what he calls “solvability” factors. Depending on community need and the ability to corroborate and investigate certain reports, Peterson said his team then prioritizes cases to determine how best to allot department resources.
He gave an example of a number of reported heroin overdoses 18 months ago that resulted in a number of deaths, which then became their highest concern.
While many of their investigations in Lincoln rely on a balance between undercover operations, traffic stops and criminal investigations, Peterson said the narcotics unit’s primary source of information relies on public reporting.
“We have always consistently had marijuana complaints through the Crime Stoppers program, or just members in the community calling and reporting incidents,” Peterson said, adding that public reports also tend to be the best gages for the drug’s availability in the area.
While public perception has helped shift the way marijuana has been enforced in the Lincoln area, law enforcement and public health officials remain wary of the practicality of its legalization.
“Many people that believe we have a lot of inmates in our jails and our state correctional facilities for possessing or smoking marijuana, and that’s simply not the case,” Peterson said. “Given the societal position, it generally just doesn’t happen, especially not as often as 20 years ago.”
Though attitudes may be changing, a change in law towards legalization may raise more complications than people would think, Casady said.
While advocates for marijuana legalization believe it would lead to fewer arrests and citations, in addition to less time and money spent by law enforcement, the consequences of legalization remain unclear.
“The reverse would probably happen,” Casady said.
He said legalizing recreational marijuana could be more of a burden for police to enforce. Similar to enforcing alcohol laws, additional money would be required training officers to handle marijuana enforcement. Casady said marijuana would need policies for issues like DUIs or serving after-hours.
“We currently spend an awful lot of resources on alcohol,” he said.
UNLPD Assistant Chief Charlotte Evans said one big concern, should marijuana be legalized, is the aspect of safety.
Like alcohol, she said, marijuana may cause people to be “safety hazards to themselves or others.”
Still, Evans said she’s unsure of how it would change UNL’s campus or UNLPD’s protocols.
“We just don’t know what it would look like,” she said.
Sen. Al Davis, who introduced a bill earlier this year (LB 189) that sought to clarify terms of marijuana enforcement, said he would not be adverse to continue to loosen restrictions on marijuana in Nebraska.
“As we observe how states like Colorado fare under legalization, I think Nebraska will naturally react to these outcomes,” Davis said. “I think first, we need to see what kind of social impact these laws are going to have.”