Eleven citations were handed out Thursday to skiers and snowboarders suspected of smoking marijuana on the gondola at the Steamboat Ski Area.
Two Routt County sheriff's deputies and three GRAMNET officers were at the top of the gondola checking cars for the odor of marijuana, Routt County Sheriff John Warner said. If the officers smelled marijuana or saw smoke coming out of the gondola, they would search the occupants for the drug.
The searches happened on a morning after the ski area received more than 14 inches of snow, and long lines of mostly locals had formed before the gondola doors opened at 8:20 a.m.
The 11 citations were given for the possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, both petty offenses. Warner said all people cited were from Steamboat Springs and were 22 years old or younger. Four of those cited were juveniles.
A similar operation happened Nov. 24, the opening day of the ski area. Two people were cited that day.
Steamboat Ski Area spokesman Mike Lane said the ski area asked the sheriff's office and the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team to conduct the operation.
Last year, the ski area received a record number of complaints about gondola cars smelling like marijuana smoke, Lane said, and ski area officials decided to work with law enforcement this winter to resolve the problem.
"We have a lot of families that come to town, and if you are putting down serious money for a week vacation, it is kind of hard to jump into a cabin that is filled with pot smoke," Lane said. "Ultimately, they are not having a great time on the mountain, and that could lead them to not come back, and that affects the entire community."
Those caught Thursday were cited, taken down from the mountain on the gondola, and their ski passes were revoked for two weeks. If caught a second time, their passes will be revoked for the rest of the season, Warner said.
Along with being illegal, smoking marijuana at the ski area is a violation of the Colorado Skier Safety Act, which makes it illegal to ski under the influence of any narcotics or alcohol, Warner said.
Warner called Thursday's operation well-planned and organized and said more are scheduled throughout the season.
"I think we are sending a message: If you are smoking dope on the gondola, you are going to get caught sooner or later," Warner said.
Warner said authorities had probable cause to search those cited based on the smoke and smell of marijuana emitting from the gondola cars. GRAMNET also had a drug recognition expert at the top of the gondola to examine suspects. The searches were conducted, and the citations were issued according to Colorado statute, Warner said, and he thinks the agency has solid cases against those cited.
"When the doors open, and the smoke rolls out of cars, and you're over there to smell the marijuana, you don't need much more probable cause than that," Warner said.
Some residents complained that the ski area chose not to alert the public of the authorities' presence, trying to trap people instead of warning them to change their behavior.
Lane said signs are posted on the gondola stating smoking is not allowed, cigarette or otherwise.
"There is no gray area in this because our position has always been the safety and well-being of our guests while they are on the mountain," Lane said.
In the past few years, the ski area has worked with the sheriff's office to step up efforts to stop illegal activity on the mountain. The sheriff's office started monitoring activity at Area 51, a popular out-of-bounds spot for skiers and riders, last year.