Marijuana has become the most common illegal drug at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a statistic UNL Police Department Capt. Jerry Plessel attributes to societal change and marijuana’s legalization in Colorado. With Lincoln being only 4 hours and 20 minutes from the Colorado border, bringing the substance to campus is easier than ever.
Over the last six years, narcotics citations have risen steadily from 90 in 2010 to 247 so far in 2016, an increase of 204 percent. The number of narcotics citations is on track to be three times the 2010 total by the end of this year. Plessel said some anecdotal accounts point to Nebraska’s western neighbor as one source of this problem.
“We’ve had reports where people mention purchasing the marijuana legally at stores in Colorado,” Plessel said.
Plessel said Colorado’s legalization of the drug has also had societal implications.
“Its a social acceptance of the use of marijuana,” Plessel said.
A common misconception among people who travel between states with marijuana is if they can legally have medical marijuana in one state, they can have it in every state. But Plessel said people should know that’s not the case.
“In Nebraska, even if you have a medical slip, it’s not legal here,” Plessel said.
Plessel said he remembers speaking to a man in possession of marijuana who produced his medical slip, thinking it made it legal to have the substance. But he was given a citation because of state law.
If a student is caught with less than one ounce of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, he or she is given an infraction citation. But students who are caught with controlled substances such as methamphetamine or cocaine face felony charges.
From November 2015 to November 2016, UNLPD logged 14 controlled substance charges in which the drug wasn’t specified. In the same time period, there were three meth cases, one cocaine case and one case of a legend drug, which needs to be prescribed by a physician.
Students who receive citations have to appear in court and contact the Office of Student Affairs.
Ryan Fette, the assistant director for student conduct, said students are contacted after UNLPD gives a citation to the office. Students have five days to get back to the office to schedule a meeting. The office will follow up with students if no contact is made, but if students can’t be reached, decisions are made in their absence.
But if students contact the office, they can explain their circumstances and work with the office to decide their fate.
“If we find that a student has violated [the student code of conduct], our main focus is holding students accountable and working to ensure that such behavior does not occur again,” Fette said.
Three case workers assess each case based on the type of violation and the surrounding circumstances.
Fette said narcotics distribution cases are considered a higher threat to the UNL community compared with possession of drugs or alcohol cases. The handling of the also depends on the number of times the individual has been cited previously.
“Its kind of hard to uniformly say, ‘This is what happened,’ because situations vary from incident to incident,” Fette said. “We do try to be consistent across patterns of facts.”
But for a first-time marijuana violation, the Office of Student Affairs matches the county diversion process. Students would have three months to complete a six-hour drug and alcohol course and 24 hours of community service and pay a $100 fee.
A first-time marijuana violation is treated similarly to a minor in possession charge, Fette said.
But alcohol violations and drug violations are not the same as far as UNLPD is concerned.
“People see someone intoxicated being contacted by the cops – most likely, they are not going to jail,” UNLPD investigator Jeremy Carther said. “It’s a different type of custody than going to jail for a different kind of violation.”
If alcohol is found in the dorms, housing officials can handle the violation on their own. But if marijuana or other narcotics are found, Plessel said, housing is required to call UNLPD to handle the situation.
Mark Elworth Jr. is the chairman of the unofficial political party Legal Marijuana Now Nebraska. The group is trying to further decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Possession of that amount isn’t a criminal offense in Nebraska, but Elworth wants to get rid of tickets, fines and all other penalties offenders are currently subject to.
“This is going to protect these kids who just have a small amount,” Elworth said.
When Elworth was younger, he was charged several times for having less than an ounce of marijuana. These charges kept him from getting into a good school or getting enough money for school, he said.
“All of that stuff will go on your record,” Elworth said. “When you look for a job, it’s going to be really hard because the first thing they do is look at your criminal history.”
As a 40-year-old, Elworth said the charges still keep him from earning the amount of money he deserves with two college diplomas.
“When I was young like that, it just spiraled, Elworth said. “Suddenly, you can’t get a job or get into good schools. Your whole 20s are wasted.”
The party is trying to get 7 percent of registered voters in Nebraska to sign a petition to get the proposal on the ballot in 2018. The organization failed to gain enough valid signatures to get it on the ballot in 2016.
Elworth said alcohol should be a bigger focus than marijuana. Alcohol consumption can lead to addiction, and overconsumption can cause death. But marijuana isn’t chemically addictive, and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration has never recorded an overdose from it.
But Elworth said proper steps still need to be taken to police marijuana.
“It’s easier to grab than alcohol for people under 21,” Elworth said. “Since [marijuana is] so readily available, we need to be able to protect these kids.”
But Plessel said UNL isn’t changing how it patrols to combat any specific problem.
“We have a zero tolerance on alcohol and MIPs, so if we are contacting you, and you are in possession of marijuana and under the age of 21 [for alcohol], you receive a citation,” Plessel said.
He said this zero tolerance policy accounts for the 98 percent increase in narcotics charges over the past few years. The more students who have marijuana on campus, the more citations will be given.
“We have to be consistent with that policy,” Plessel said.
If Elworth’s organization is successful at decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in Nebraska, those small amounts would still be illegal on campus, according to Fette. UNL abides by the Drug-Free Schools Act, which gives the university funding for being drug-free.
“We would probably look at marijuana the same way alcohol is looked at,” Fette said. “The Board of Regents would most likely make a policy for campus.”
But for the time being, students should think about the consequences of having drugs or alcohol at UNL, Fette said.
“Why would you take the risk?” Fette said. “I would ask students, ‘What are the benefits to you personally having alcohol or drugs on campus?’ And weigh that against the possibility of having a criminal record, court fines and having to disclose to anyone doing a background check on them that you have a criminal record.”