Union County Sheriff James Lobb and his sidekick, Undersheriff Mike Shoemate, proudly look over the 14 pounds of marijuana they recently confiscated. It’s a motherlode of Colorado contraband, a stark contrast from the dribs and drabs of personal possession cases that seep over the border.
The loot is the result of recent checkpoints and extra vigilance paid along the main highway that passes through the small rural town of Clayton. Deputies seemed to have stumbled upon a trafficking crossroads in the northeastern part of New Mexico that sits 100 miles southeast of Trinidad, Colo., and 10 miles from the Texas line.
Pounds of pot keep piling up since the Centennial State's 2012 legalization. So too do the edibles—the lollipops, the cookies, the gummy bears—and now something relatively new and on the rise: hockey puck-looking pieces of a substance called "wax" that's a concentrated form of marijuana.
Shoemate, a 52-year-old law enforcement veteran, says at least half a dozen Texas residents have been arrested since April on marijuana trafficking charges, on their way back home to Amarillo, Lubbock, Dallas, San Antonio and (ironically) the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, near the US-Mexico border.
Back in the day, in the 1970s and 1980s, that's where bricks of brown, seedy marijuana came from as it was smuggled north across the Rio Grande. Now, the roles seem to have reversed.
"It's a free for all, man," says Shoemate, who compares Colorado's pot dispensaries to grocery stores. "They go up there, buy the stuff because it's legal, then shoot back down this way."
And it's not just happening in Union County.
Spillovers and seizures are beginning to surface along Nebraska and Oklahoma highways, their train depots, their bus stations. Narcotics bureaus there are seizing more than their manpower can handle. In May, both states decided to sue Colorado in US Supreme Court, hoping it will be forced to repeal its recreational pot law.
In New Mexico, the trickledown effect has not been so dramatic, probably because medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 2007, and there's even been a push to legalize it recreationally in the Roundhouse these past two sessions.
With the exception of Union County, interdiction programs appear to be virtually nonexistent. Narcotics officers from area law enforcement agencies say they are too busy focusing on meth and pharmaceutical drugs to pay attention to Colorado's recreational marijuana or set up checkpoints.
And yet that's not to say that police in the northern parts of the state aren't coming across Colorado weed during routine traffic stops. They are. Cops say they've noticed an uptick in the number of citations and arrests for marijuana possession ever since dozens of dispensaries started cropping up in the towns of Durango and Trinidad to meet the demand for recreational use.
Just a few months ago, a Rio Arriba County deputy sheriff, for instance, stopped a young Denver man with a large plastic pretzel jar full of buds, says Lt. Randy Sanches, a narcotics officer with Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office. Although the man could have likely gotten away with just a misdemeanor citation, a court appearance and a small fine, per state law, he lied to police about his identity and ended up in jail.
In most cases, police say drivers are reading from the same script: They forgot it wasn't legal in New Mexico, or they thought they could bring it over because it's legal in Colorado. Or they didn't think they would get caught.
For their part, Colorado dispensaries make it abundantly clear at the time of purchase that the marijuana is not to leave the state, which leads Colfax County Sheriff Rick Sinclair to point out that "what's purchased in Trinidad should stay in Trinidad."
"Once you cross the state lines," Sinclair adds from his territory near Raton, "the laws change, too. Remember that."
In San Juan County, deputies are coming across the stuff more and more during traffic stops, at least a half dozen to a dozen a month, says Sgt. Kevin Burns, but pot isn't "high on our radar," he adds.
"Our big problem out here is meth," says Burns, a narcotics officer based in Farmington.
That leaves Union County, up in the far northeastern corner of the state, holding the bag, their proactive and pre-emptive approach an exception in New Mexico, not the rule.
It's conservative up in these parts. Lobb and Shoemate take personal offense to people hauling marijuana across their county line. They plan on applying for more grants to hold even more checkpoints like the ones they held in the last two weeks of April.
In the words of Shoemate, "We're out in the middle of nowhere and don't get any help from nobody."
Of the recent suspected traffickers, Shoemate tells SFR: "We think these people, they're living out of their cars and they don't have much money and what they're doing is they're spending all the money they got on pot in Colorado. Those dispensaries are like grocery stores up there. Then, in order to get back home, we think they're trying to sell it along the way, but we caught them before they could do that."
"We've got enough problems in our community. We don't need another one."
Sheriff Lobb, 49, holds little back in his disgust for those who use marijuana and has even greater disdain for the state of Colorado for making it legal.
"We're talking about the future of our children," he says.