As Washington Pot Goes On Sale, Idaho Cops Worry About Cross-Border Shopping Trips

Jul 8, 2014

Recreational marijuana goes on sale Tuesday in Washington state. But police across the border in Idaho and Oregon say that doesn't mean the pot will stay there. Law enforcement worry people will try to sneak pot products across the border – or worse, the legal market in Washington will seep into the black-market. Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from Idaho, where the contrast in pot laws is especially stark.

106 pounds of confiscated pot.
Credit Idaho State Police

Chris Cottrell walks into one of the few places in Idaho where it's OK to have marijuana.

The locked room where evidence is weighed and packaged at the Idaho State Police headquarters in Boise.

Cottrell: “There's a familiar smell, huh?”

It smells like pot. Cottrell is a corporal on the force. He patrols I-84 and smaller highways in southern Idaho with his drug-sniffing black lab, Dax. It feels like a world away from the leafy, state-sanctioned pot farms in Washington.

Cottrell: “You know, it is different to see that stuff going on. Of course we live in a state where it's in no form legal.”

Indeed. Idaho has no medical marijuana law. In fact, the legislature has vowed never to pass any sort of marijuana law -- medical or recreational. Last year, the state police confiscated more than 700 pounds of pot. And Cottrell says that number has increased as surrounding states have moved toward legalization.

Cottrell: “And the law enforcement here has taken it head-on. We are not going to stand by and allow this to happen. Our laws don't allow for it and our law enforcement doesn't allow for it.”

Recently there have been complaints about law enforcement being a bit TOO vigilant. . In June, a video of Kootenai County sheriff's deputies went viral. The two deputies thought they overheard a drug deal when they heard two men say “nickel sack” ...

Deputy: “I heard him say nickel sack.”

Man: “It was Nickelback.”

Deputy: “Stop talking.”

Things got heated as they argued over whether the men had said “nickel sack” or Nickelback.

If you’re wondering why that matters -- according to the two officers, a “nickel sack” is presumably a $5 bag of weed … and Nickelback…

... that Canadian band everyone loves to hate. The two young men said a nearby car had been blaring one of the band’s songs and that’s what they were talking about.

In the end, the two men weren’t charged with anything.

And there have been other incidents. Earlier this year, a 69-year-old man who was stopped and questioned on I-84 sued the Idaho State Police. He says he was “profiled” based on his Colorado license plates.

Chris Cottrell says troopers, in fact, do consider the license plate – but not as the sole reason to pull someone over.

Cottrell: “If you were just stopping strictly on license plates, it would be a violation of their rights, but it would be a waste of our time too."

Jessica: “But you said it is a consideration?”

Cottrell: “It is a consideration absolutely. When you think about drugs being trafficked and coming through, and it starts at a source state, yeah it's a consideration that you make.”

And Idaho isn't the only state that's worried.

Tom Gorman heads a program in Denver that works with law enforcement to track drug busts in the region. He says Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas are already starting to see the effects of Colorado's legalized pot.

Gorman: “We have become the source state for a number of other states in the country and we think that what we see is such a small amount of what is actually getting through, and it's 'Oh my God.' It's pretty big business, pretty big business.”

Of course, this comes with an asterisk: so far most of the data Gorman is using only covers the years of legal medical marijuana. That’s a separate system that's less tightly regulated.

Washington, like Colorado, says it plans to keep a tight leash on its recreational market.

Washington’s Liquor Control Board says it’s put measures in place to prevent producers from going rogue. That includes a barcode system that tracks product from the plant to the final sale.

And Washington’s neighbors may be worrying over nothing, at least for now. That’s what Mark Kleiman thinks. He’s the UCLA public policy expert the state of Washington hired as a consultant.

Kleiman: “If I were in law enforcement in Idaho, I would be very unworried now and pretty worried about two years from now.”

That's because in two years, Kleiman expects the retail price of recreational marijuana to come way down and become potentially cheaper than black market pot.

Kleiman: “Then you have to worry about organizing gangs of people, each of whom buys the legal limit of one ounce in each of 10 stores in Seattle. … That's something the federal government has indicated they're going to be aggressive about. And I think the answer is mostly keeping the prices high.”

Some law enforcement across Idaho are already bracing for the worst.

But at ground zero, here on the Idaho-Washington border, at least one sheriff's department is unfazed. Lt. Brannon Jordan supervises the patrol division at the Latah County Sheriff's Office in Moscow, Idaho. He says contrary to rumor, there are no plans for border “check points” and targeting Washington license plates.

Jordan: “All of that is just nonsense. Nothing has changed for us. This is a Washington law. Whether or not we see a spike in marijuana use in Idaho remains to be seen. But it's going to be business as usual for us a the sheriff's office here.”

The main message from Idaho law enforcement is: when you come to visit, please leave your pot at home.

Max Bartlett of Northwest Public Radio contributed to this story.

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