A man walks, across Main Street in Wray, in Yuma County, February 22, 2017. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Rural Colorado county’s sheriffs say legal marijuana makes their job more difficult

WRAY — Yuma County sheriff Sgt. James Thomson was on his way to deliver an eviction notice when a long-running family feud erupted in shooting about 40 miles from where he was driving on a rural farm road.

Thomson made a dash across the county, the speedometer in his pickup spiking at more than 110 miles per hour.

By the time he arrived, all but one of the six patrol members of the sheriff’s office were on the scene, where one suspect allegedly fired an AK-47 several times into the air outside his cousin’s house.

Inside, two children huddled behind mattresses their mother had propped against a wall to protect them when two armed men had arrived at the house.

Arrests were made and deputies found the gun and a magazine that one of the suspects had thrown from the window of a pickup into a ditch along the road.

It was just another day for a budget-strapped department with few officers, a vast area to patrol, and criminal acts that run the gamut from hog theft to methamphetamine distribution.

Complicating the patrol of the vast county that ends at the Nebraska and Kansas state lines is confusion about Colorado’s marijuana industry that leads to complaints from residents about legal pot grows, and rules that make it difficult to determine whether a grow is state-sanctioned or weed destined to cross state lines illegally.

“The majority of the time, I only have two patrol deputies on duty to cover 2,400 square miles,” Sheriff Chad Day said, “and many times just one.”

County leaders say there is little chance of beefing up the sheriff’s budget in a county that has experienced a tumble in its revenue base due to a decline in the oil and gas business and a plunge in agricultural commodity prices.

In rural counties statewide, sheriff’s and other elected officials will “tell you that commissioners need to appropriate more money for their departments,” said Chip Taylor, executive director of Colorado Counties Inc.

Commissioners who hold the purse strings are trying to squeeze every service they can out of every dime they get, Taylor said.

On the day that Thomson responded to the felony menacing call that ended with two men in custody, one deputy at the scene was working on his day off and another was on overtime.

Before the paperwork was done, Undersheriff Adam Wills had also come to the scene.

Every year since he was elected in 2010, Day has asked the Yuma County commissioners to OK hiring four more officers. They’ve declined.

The first-year cost of adding four deputies to the roster would boost the sheriff’s $1.8 million budget by $536,000, and then $332,000 in subsequent years.

“That is just what I believe we need to get to a basic level of efficiency and provide basic safety for deputies while they’re on duty,” Day said.

A contraction in the oil and gas industry has dragged down the assessed value of land in the county — the measure by which property taxes are set — by 43 percent since 2010, Yuma County commissioner Robin Wiley said.

Oil and gas once accounted for more than 50 percent of assessed valuation. Today it accounts for 7 percent, Wiley said.

Agricultural commodity prices, a major driver of the county’s economy, have also plunged. “When your commodities are down, farmers are less likely to buy equipment or have funds to spend, so it affects your economy,” county administrator Kara Hoover said.

Sheriff’s departments in sprawling rural counties across Colorado face difficulty when incidents occur that require multiple officers to respond, said Chris Johnson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado.

“Small agencies could use more funding, but if it isn’t there, it isn’t there,” Johnson said. “You rely on assistance from other offices and you do the best you can.”

The amount of Day’s budget earmarked for overtime is never sufficient to pay the number of hours deputies put in, he said. “Last year, for example, our overtime was overspent by around 300 percent.”

There is always a portion of each year when at least one position is vacant, he added. “The savings from those vacancies have always been necessary to cover the overtime that is in excess of my OT budget.”

Potential hires for patrol deputy often walk away from a job offer when they hear that the starting pay is $33,180 per year, Day said.

In Yuma, the county’s largest town, starting police officers get $44,000 per year, Police Chief Jon Lynch said.

At one time, when the wife of one of Day’s deputies was out of work, the couple and their three children had to receive food stamps.

Almost 6,000 of Yuma County’s 10,000 or so residents live in the towns of Wray and Yuma. The rest are spread across an expanse of farmland.

Possession and sale of methamphetamine and cocaine, as well as robberies and burglaries, account for most of the felonies committed in the county.

“Meth and cocaine is pretty out of control out here,” Thomson said.

Domestic violence calls, among the most dangerous faced by law enforcement, are frequently handled by one deputy. Nationally, more than 20 percent of the 132 officers killed on duty between 2010 to 2014 were responding to a domestic dispute, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Thomson said hundreds of swine were stolen from a hog farm over a period of time last year — a crime that hasn’t been solved. Thieves frequently plunder copper and other metal from sprinkler systems used to irrigate crops.

The legalization of pot has stripped patrol officers of a tactical advantage that frequently led to busts for theft or more dangerous illegal drugs, Undersheriff Wills said.

“We used to be able to search a vehicle if we smelled marijuana,” he said. “Now we say ‘do you have anything illegal?’ They say, ‘No, just marijuana.’ We used to be able to use that to find other things.”

County residents often complain about marijuana grows scattered throughout the county, where legalization is unpopular and there are no dispensaries or retail shops.

Grows near the Nebraska state line roused suspicion that some portion of the weed could be shipped to illegal drug dealers across the state line through Nebraska, or Kansas, Wills said.

“But it’s awfully hard for us to interdict these guys without surveillance, and we don’t have the manpower,” he said.

Regulations governing marijuana — which is not taxed by Yuma County and adds nothing to its bottom line — make it difficult to determine if many of the grows in the county are legal, or if the pot is headed for the gray market.

The law allows residents 21 and older to grow six plants, with three of those being mature at any given time. But caregivers who grow for medical marijuana patients can have as many as 99 plants for each patient who has received an “extended plant count” from a doctor recommending the extra plants based on medical circumstances.

The closest dispensary to Wray, the Yuma County seat, is more than an hour away in Morgan County. “There are no commercial operations allowed in Yuma,” Day said.

“Doctors say because you are so far away from commercial facilities you need to be allowed to grow bigger numbers of plants,” he explained

Day was one of six Colorado sheriffs who sued Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2015 claiming the state’s pot law forced them to break federal law. The case was consolidated with others and is being considered by the 10th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last year, Yuma County deputies responded to a complaint about a grow at a mobile home and found three residents with medical licenses who had extended plant counts.

One of them was a caretaker for three other patients who also were allowed large numbers of plants. They were entitled to have more than 600 plants on the property.

“I’m not qualified to determine how much marijuana someone needs, but the law doesn’t help us out in determining how much,” Day said.

A few blocks from the sheriff’s office in Wray, three greenhouses belonging to CW Hemp front the street. The industrial hemp plants inside are a type of cannabis low in THC, the chemical that gives pot smokers a high, but high in non-psychotropic cannabinoid cannabidiol, which is used to treat seizures.

The greenhouses have been there since March 2014. “I still get reports that there is a bunch of illegal weed being grown,” Day said.

Those complaining wonder “how can the sheriff miss it, it’s right beside the highway,” Day said.

The county has far more pressing drug problems than marijuana.

Last October, while investigating a shooting, sheriff’s deputies found $320,000 worth of methamphetamine, several ounces of cocaine, as well as other illegal drugs and firearms in a residence.

Product from home-brew meth labs that once dotted the county has largely disappeared, replaced by crystal flowing across the U.S. border with Mexico.

Rumors often bubble up from the Latino community of drug-cartel associates coming to the county to visit family, or flee the gangster environment, Day said.

The visits send a chill through the Latino community, where cartels’ reputation for violence is well-known, and some residents have family members or friends in Mexico who have been brutalized by cartel members.

Day doubts that the visitors are coming to engage in violence or pump drugs into the area.

“If they were coming here to do those things, we would find evidence,” he said. “That’s not to say that when they come, they don’t bring a load of dope with them.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com