By Stephen Ward
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Five busloads of students who stopped in Nevada en route to a ski trip were given a break on Thursday when police let them to go free in exchange for turning over large quantities of marijuana and alcohol stashed in their luggage.
Elko Police Chief Don Zumwalt said the decision to release some 250 teenagers and their young-adult chaperons with a warning, rather than arrest them, hinged in part on a lack of jail space for detaining such a large group in the small northeastern Nevada town.
According to Zumwalt, the majority of the high school students, all of them on their way from California to a ski resort in Utah, were grateful for his generosity.
"Most kids thanked me when we were done," he said. "There were a few who weren't very happy, but for the most part I'm gonna say they were respectful."
The buses were inspected by police after a convenience store clerk called authorities to report that the youths appeared to have been smoking drugs in the parking lot of his store just off Interstate 80.
Although the teens were accompanied by chaperons, Elko police said no one present appeared to be older than 20.
Three of the town's four police patrol units were sent to the scene.
Zumwalt said that had the students declined to voluntarily give up their pot, alcohol and drug paraphernalia stowed in baggage compartments, police would have been forced to obtain a search warrant, impound the buses and place the entire group in custody.
Knowing that the nearest juvenile detention center and local jail lacked sufficient space to accommodate everyone was a factor in how police chose to handle the situation, he said.
"I don't know how many beds are over in juvenile, but we would've overwhelmed the juvenile department as well as the jail," he said. "We wouldn't have had room for all of them."
Zumwalt said Elko police have not yet weighed the marijuana they seized -- it was roughly enough to fill two large kitchen trash bags, he said -- but no one appeared under the influence at the time the buses were stopped.
He said he was trying to contact officials with the tour group, Summer Winter Action Tours, to inform them of the incident.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)