LAS VEGAS — A police chief in northern Nevada said Thursday he decided to use the discovery of marijuana on five Utah-bound buses carrying 250 underage skiers from Northern California as a teaching moment instead of an enforcement headache.
Elko Police Chief Don Zumwalt said he offered a choice to the mostly teenage passengers from the Bay Area: They could spend their three-day ski and snowboard trip in juvenile detention in northeast Nevada, or they could turn over the illegal drugs voluntarily.
The kids gave up the pot.
"A lot of them thanked us. Some scowled," Zumwalt said during a telephone interview from his town of about 19,000 residents off Interstate 80. "You wonder, 'Did I make a difference here?'"
Video showed the haul included pipes, bongs and rolling papers stored in jars, Tupperware, cigarette packs and plastic bags. Zumwalt said it hadn't been weighed, but he guessed the marijuana totaled several pounds.
KRNV-TV in Reno first reported the contraband confiscation on late Tuesday. Zumwalt said it stemmed from a store clerk's report that passengers were smoking in the parking lot of an Elko travel plaza near the interstate. The police chief estimated the group had been traveling for eight hours, and was about four or five hours from Salt Lake City.
After police dogs sniffed marijuana in each baggage compartment of each bus, Zumwalt said he realized he had a problem.
"We had 250 kids. I don't know if anyone was over 21," he said. "I could have written a citation and arrested them all and confiscated the buses. But logistically it would have been a nightmare. Who belonged to what? Where would we put them?"
The juvenile detention facility in Elko has 20 beds.
"Las Vegas or Reno police might have done things differently," Zumwalt said. "But this is how we solved the dilemma. Rather than seize the buses and obtain search warrants, we said, 'Get all the stuff off the buses.'"
"No one was under the influence. No one was injured. I gave each bus a fatherly talk about skiing sober. I told them to be safe. I didn't want them skiing stoned out of their minds or dying of a drug overdose."
Zumwalt said he was trying to contact officials with the tour operator, Summer Winter Action Tours, based in Costa Mesa, Calif. A website touts the trip, dubbed El Nino 2011, as a gathering of high school students from 67 schools in Los Angeles, Orange County, Temecula and Arizona, 27 schools in the San Diego area, and 40 schools in Northern California.
"I'm trying to hunt down who has ultimate responsibility," Zumwalt said. KRNV said a company official called it almost impossible to control what people bring onto the bus.