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Colorado pot shops are open, but bringing it back could mean jail time

Updated: 2014-01-02T07:33:01Z

By BRIAN BURNES and JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

As of Wednesday morning, you can cross into Colorado for a perfectly legal, stupefying, all-cannabis Rocky Mountain High.

Just beware what you bring home.

Recreational pot remains fully illegal in 48 other states (including Kansas and Missouri, but not Washington state).

So don’t try bringing any of it back to Kansas City. And driving back with even just a buzz isn’t only unsafe, influence of the weed while behind the wheel is a crime in Colorado and carrying a stash east over the border gives the cops reason to lock you up.

What’s more, carrying home a hint of pot in your system could create a problem if you work for someone who’s likely to test for the drug, or if you’re looking for a new job that screens applicants.

What’s less clear is how law enforcement in western Kansas might crack down on tourists who bring marijuana across the Colorado/Kansas line.

“The Kansas Highway Patrol and police agencies out near the border are really looking hard for people who are bringing marijuana into the state from Colorado,” said Brian Leininger, a Leawood criminal defense attorney who represents clients charged with drug and driving under the influence offenses.

Lt. Josh Kellerman, Kansas Highway Patrol public information officer, disagreed.

“We have made (troopers) aware that the change in the law is going into effect, but it’s not something we have spent a lot of time on,” Kellerman said. “It is still illegal in Kansas and we are not telling anybody to change their enforcement standard.”

Colorado state law, as of today, allows customers to legally purchase pot from state-licensed retailers purely for the high.

Medicinal marijuana, purchased legally in the state with a prescription, has been around for several years even though it was largely beyond the reach of visitors to the state. About a dozen legal pot dealers are expected to begin selling in Denver today, with about 20 others opening elsewhere.

Customers must be 21 years old to buy. Adults with a valid Colorado identification card can purchase as much as 1 ounce. Nonresidents can purchase as much as a quarter ounce.

Anyone younger than 21 caught using marijuana is subject to potential jail time and fines.

Smoking marijuana in public is illegal in Colorado. Also, lighting up on federal property is against the law — something to remember if you will be visiting one of Colorado’s 13 national parks.

Kansas City area residents who work for employers who enforce drug testing, or residents who may be under court-supervised probation, might want to think twice, Leininger said.

“It is not an excuse,” he said, “that you used marijuana legally in a legal state.”

Also, don’t operate a vehicle after indulging at length.

“Don’t drive under the influence,” said Coulter deVries, a Kansas City lawyer who devotes about half his practice to clients facing driving while intoxicated, drug-related offenses or issues regarding commercial driver’s licenses.

Under Colorado law, drivers found to have 5 nanograms or more of THC per milliliter in their bloodstream can be ticketed for impaired driving. THC is the active ingredient in cannabis.

While the federal government has declined to challenge the state law, approved by Colorado voters in 2012, federal prosecutors still will target trafficking of marijuana across state lines and its sale to minors.

Kellerman, of the Kansas Highway Patrol, said that his colleagues “may see an influx” of marijuana, “but we are telling our people to operate as normal.”

Sgt. Bill Lowe of the Missouri Highway Patrol agreed.

“Nothing has changed in Missouri,” Lowe said. “Whether you are from Colorado or not, you can’t have it here.”

The Kansas Highway Patrol made 468 felony trafficking arrests and seized nearly 7,000 pounds of marijuana in 2012, according to The Associated Press.

The agency also seized 2,654 pounds and arrested 187 people during the first five months of 2013. A highway patrol analysis of 133 arrests made through early 2013 showed that 79 seizures were of marijuana traced to Colorado. Marijuana traced to California — where it’s legal to buy and sell for medical purposes — was next at 35 seizures.

Missouri Highway Patrol troopers, meanwhile, continue to make the drug arrests that begin as traffic stops. In November, a trooper who pulled over a driver in Cooper County for apparent driving irregularities ultimately arrested the 64-year-old South Carolina man, who was discovered to have more than 100 pounds of marijuana in his vehicle.

On Tuesday, Denver police were adding extra patrols around pot shops in eight Colorado towns that plan to allow recreational sales beginning today. Officials at Denver International Airport installed new signs warning visitors their weed can’t legally go home with them.

For now, anyone venturing from Kansas in search of legal marijuana will have to travel deep into Colorado to the Denver area to find the first licensed dealers, according to a list in The Denver Post.

And if the city of Burlington is leading a wider trend, it might be a while before shops open close to the border.

Burlington, the first major Colorado interchange on Interstate 70 some 12 miles from the Kansas border, won’t be allowing marijuana sales any time soon.

Its city council unanimously passed an ordinance last March prohibiting any cultivation, product manufacturing, testing or retail sales of marijuana within the city’s boundaries.

It was an easy decision for the council, said Police Chief Barry Romans, because “the vast majority of the county is against it.”

Law enforcement agencies on the Kansas side of the border don’t sound too fond of it either.

Police Chief Ron Alexander in Colby, Kan., would like to post a variation on the seat belt enforcement sign that warns, “Click it or ticket,” with a marijuana leaf and the words “ditch it or ticket.”

Anyone who pulls off the interstate into Colby and is discovered in possession of marijuana will encounter the law, he said.

A personal baggie will bring down a misdemeanor charge. A substantial amount that suggests any intent to distribute marijuana will bring a felony charge and potential jail time.

“Our concern is that I see it becoming a lot more accessible to our local community,” Alexander said. “It already happens, but this seems to open the flood gates to make it easier.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article. To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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