LIVE VIDEO: 9NEWS Evening Newscast    Watch
 

Wyo., Colo. marijuana laws collide at border

7:51 PM, Nov 19, 2012   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

But drive 38 miles north of Fort Collins to the Wyoming border, and just being stoned can get you thrown in jail.

"They're polar opposites," said David McCarthy, a defense attorney in Laramie, Wyo.

Police in Wyoming's capitol expect the relaxed laws in nearby Colorado will continue a documented increase in marijuana offenses.

"We have prepared, though, because we've seen Colorado going toward this trend," Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said. "We've trained all 105 officers in drug recognition."

As Colorado and 25 other states have allowed medical marijuana and/or decriminalized possessing small amounts of pot, Wyoming's laws remain fully intact. Pot-using Coloradans, including those with medical-marijuana cards, are advised to leave their marijuana at home when visiting the neighboring state. The same goes for students, many of whom are excited about the prospect of legal marijuana.

Terhesa Phillips, 18, a University of Wyoming freshman from Thornton, said students often smoke pot in their cars in Laramie. She said passage of Amendment 64 legalizing marijuana is a good thing and there's buzz among the university's student population.

"People are very excited," she said, adding that marijuana use is "just what happens - what people do."

'Uptick in confusion'

Like the boldly colored, border-area fireworks stands of Wyoming, the Colorado side could be marked by marijuana stores in as few as 14 months.

Police agencies operating near the border aren't changing their enforcement strategies, but they expect more pot to be flowing across the border - and more driving-under-the-influence arrests are anticipated.

Albany County prosecutor Richard Bohling, who works out of Laramie, said that since medical marijuana was approved, there's been a "rash of cases" with people who "literally thought they could just fire up a joint and drive leisurely to Wyoming with marijuana smoke billowing out of the car like a Cheech and Chong movie."

The past few years, new students at UW receive instructions during orientation that all marijuana is prohibited.

"Because of medical marijuana in Colorado and Montana, we've seen an uptick in confusion about the legality or illegality of marijuana," UW Dean of Students David Cozzens said. "And we've reminded parents and students that it is illegal in Wyoming,"

He said more marijuana use is expected now that Colorado has legalized marijuana.

Morgan Kuchta, 22, a UW senior from Fort Collins, said she has a friend who "got in pretty big trouble" for having less than an ounce of marijuana on campus and had to pay a fine with community service and drug classes. The marijuana culture is more underground in Wyoming than in Colorado, but she said marijuana is "definitely" around.

"Now that it's legalized (in Colorado), I think access is going to get a lot easier" in Wyoming, she said.

In Wyoming, anyone with a joint or even a small pinch of marijuana can be arrested, spend a year in jail and get fined up to $1,000. Kozak said it's a no-bond arrest, meaning someone caught with marijuana goes to jail and must see a judge before it's possible to get out.

Meanwhile, adults in Colorado in the next month could legally possess as much as a sandwich baggie full of marijuana after voters on Nov. 6 approved Amendment 64 legalizing the drug for recreational use. Possession will be legal once the vote is certified, pending possible federal intervention, and marijuana stores could be opening by January 2014.

Limited wiggle room

The courts in Wyoming have taken a "very firm stance" against influence from its neighboring states that have changed marijuana laws, McCarthy said.

"Medical marijuana isn't even allowed to be brought out in front of a jury," he said of a Wyoming Supreme Court decision to prevent medical marijuana as a defense against possession charges.

But Kozak said out-of-state medical marijuana cards can be used to show that a suspect intended to use drugs.

"My recommendation to Colorado people is if you want to keep your medical cards, don't come here, because we'll seize them as evidence," he said. "Since you have passed medical marijuana, we've seen an increase of drivers under the influence of drugs, including marijuana."

Bohling said there's even been a case where the residue was scraped out of a marijuana pipe and sent to a crime lab. After it tested positive for marijuana, that person was charged with possession.

And it doesn't look like the laws there will change anytime soon.

McCarthy said there's really not any movement in Wyoming to change marijuana laws that compares to the efforts to change Colorado's law.

Bohling shared a similar observation.

"The political make-up of Wyoming is still significantly different from the make-up of Colorado," he said. "If (marijuana decriminalization) expands or grows to contiguous states, it will not be Wyoming that's one of the first."

Kuchtz said Wyoming college students expect police there to be harder on drug and alcohol crimes than in Colorado. But students will still go to Colorado for weed and bring it back.

People from out-of-state are more likely to be arrested for possession, as Laramie police Lt. Gwen Smith said the bond requirement helps ensure they'll appear in court.

Exceptions,uncertainty

McCarthy said there is some mercy for first offenders: For a first marijuana possession charge, a person can receive a deferred sentence through successful completion of probation.

"It's unique in that you don't need the consent of a prosecutor in order to get that treatment," he said. "I think Wyoming tends to lean toward the stance that illegal drug use is a problem and treatment through counseling or things of that nature are preferred."

Although just being caught high on marijuana could result in a $100 fine with up to 90 days in jail, Kozak said his agency didn't issue any tickets for that in the past year. He said the charge is usually for a grade-school student or someone in public causing problems and needing to be removed from the street.

"Very rarely do we use that," he said.

Law enforcers in Laramie and with the Wyoming State Patrol said they're not planning any changes until Colorado's laws become final. The federal government hasn't yet indicated whether it will interfere.

But the impact of Amendment 64 appears inevitable.

"With it being completely legal in Colorado, I think Wyoming will have some issues it's going to have to grapple with," McCarthy said. "It creates an interesting conundrum."

Written by: Robert Allen, The Coloradoan


(Copyright © 2012 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

Most Watched Videos