Marijuana and the Cowboy State: Will The Law Change?

Confident female doctor with clipboard posing in a hemp field alternative herbal medicine concept

In November, North Dakota voters will vote on whether or not to add the state to the growing list of states with legal marijuana sales. There are competing polls, one showing it will fail by a considerable margin, and another showing it will pass with flying colors.

If you include the District of Columbia, there are currently 10 states that allow adults to legally consume marijuana. Another 31 states allow for certain medical uses of the drug.

In November, Utah voters will decide if that state will permit people to use marijuana for qualifying medical conditions, and several polls have shown consistently the measure is expected to pass.

If the measures in North Dakota and Utah are approved, it will leave Wyoming and Idaho as the only states in the West without any legal uses for marijuana, medical or otherwise.

As policy shifts across the country, even in staunchly Republican states, Wyoming remains a bastion of marijuana prohibition, with some of the most restrictive laws in the country.

Will these policy shifts in other conservative states change the conversation on marijuana, medical marijuana, and hemp in Wyoming?

Attempts

There have been a number of attempts to change marijuana policy in the Cowboy State, all of which have failed.

In 2015, Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) introduced legislation to lessen penalties for less than one ounce of marijuana, which died in the house 38 to 22.

The following year the Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) considered pursuing a ballot initiative to legalize recreational use for anyone over 21. Instead, based on polls, they pursued a ballot initiative to allow for medical uses of the drug, which failed to get enough signatures.

“We were asked to provide a definition for today’s marijuana.” – Byron Oedekoven on WASCOP

Last year, supporters attempted to collect enough signatures to allow for the sale, use, and cultivation of marijuana through the Wyoming Liquor Division. Like the previous year’s medical marijuana attempt, this one also failed to collect enough signatures to make it on the ballot.

Much of this has more to do with Wyoming’s stringent requirements to place a voter initiative on the ballot than a lack of support.

According to a 2016 University of Wyoming poll, 81 percent support medical marijuana, and 41 percent supported legal personal use. Another 72 percent said there should be no jail time for small amounts of marijuana.

All these figures were up a few percentage points from a poll done two years prior.

Currently, in Wyoming, a possession of three ounces or less carries a maximum of $1,000 fine and a year in prison. Anything more than that is a serious felony, carrying up to five years. And there is no exception for medical uses.

Opposition

A bill in the 2017 legislative session would have reduced the penalties for first-time possession of less than three ounces of marijuana to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.

According to Nate Martin, director of Better Wyoming, a politically progressive advocacy group, the measure failed as a result of interference from the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police (WASCOP). They asked for so many changes to the bill that the committee ran out of time and supporters lost interest in the measure.

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

Martin said Rep. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) asked WASCOP to look over the bill and change the language to reflect something they’d find more palatable.

The bill ultimately died in committee. Martin also suggests in a Better Wyoming opinion piece that WASCOP was an important driver behind bills to “criminalize” non-plant forms of marijuana.

For example, edibles, as they are called, have become increasingly popular since Colorado legalized recreational use in 2012, opening the door for THC-infused foods from gummy bears to colas.

One such bill in the last legislative session was never considered in the committee as a whole, and it was the fourth time bills dealing with edibles have died.

“I don’t think there’s any heart in the House to raise penalties.” – Frank Latta on the coming legislative session

In fact, these items were never legal to begin with, but the law depends on the weight of a drug to determine its penalty. As such, charges involving these items were greatly inflated, and the bills sought to clarify that matter. In that way, they were actually lessening penalties.

Considering this presence in the debates on marijuana-related bills, Martin called WASCOP a group of lobbyists who use their “No Debate” campaign to promote opposition to marijuana law reform in the state.

Christensen didn’t respond by press time to requests for his version of events on what happened with the decriminalization bill, but Byron Oedekoven, executive director of WASCOP, called Martin’s version of events “inflammatory and inaccurate.”

Oedekoven, who was Campbell County Sheriff from 1987 to 2004, said the organization’s role in the legislative process is purely an advisory one, and they do not lobby. He said it was “flattering” that Martin thought they had that much influence over legislators. The bill failed to pass, so there is some truth to that statement.

Oedekoven said all they did for that bill is provide accurate information from the point of view of law enforcement.

“We were asked to provide a definition for today’s marijuana,” Oedekoven explained.

Harmful?

He says that marijuana’s potential for harm is not anecdotal, and there are lots of peer-reviewed studies showing potential health consequences for using the drug.

However, the same is true for Big Macs and alcohol, both of which are legally consumed. Truly, nothing is harmless.

“We try to provide factual information for people to make their own decisions,” Oedekoven said.

When asked if they’d oppose a bill that legalized marijuana, he points out that Colorado didn’t legalize marijuana, which is true. There are a number of restrictions over how old you have to be to purchase marijuana, how much you can possess, and when and where you can ingest the drug. There are strict controls over producers and sellers, and how they can operate their businesses. Essentially, it’s used, sold, and produced with more restrictions than alcohol.

Oedekoven said WASCOP’s position on any bill would depend on the language of the bill itself.

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

“Depending on how they word it, that’s where we provide information,” the former sheriff said.

He added that Colorado voters were unaware of many problems that have arisen as a result of legal sales in the state, and many didn’t realize what they were voting for when it passed. He presents various anecdotal points, and there are plenty of stories of problems resulting from legal marijuana sales.

“I think we ought to look at our statutes,” Sen. Eli Bebout on marijuana

Prohibition has its own share of stories, including the ultraviolent drug cartels whose resources always outpace those of law enforcement due to the extremely lucrative black market in drugs.

And while there are problems with a legal market in marijuana, it doesn’t appear these problems are perceived by voters to be greater than the problem of policing people’s choice to consume the drug. Measures to repeal legal sales in Pueblo and Manitou Springs both failed.

Various polls also show continuing support for legal sales. In 2016, the Marijuana Policy Project commissioned a poll, which was conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. It found 51 percent would oppose a measure to repeal the law that ended marijuana prohibition, while 36 percent would support it. Another 13 percent weren’t sure.

Nine months after legal sales began, an NBC News/Marist Poll found 55 percent supported the law. A year after legal recreational sales, a SurveyUSA poll done for the Denver Post found 90 percent of those who voted for the law would do so again.

There’s really no evidence, despite the problems—and there are problems—that voters regret the change in policy.

If the Wyoming legislature attempted a similar measure, Oedekoven said they would do as they’ve always done—give lawmakers the facts and let the process go forward.

“It’s up to the legislators on how they vote on it,” he said.

Sausage factory

Frank Latta was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978, and many people say marijuana can be helpful in treating the disease.

Latta served several years on the Gillette council and was mayor of Gillette for eight years. He served four years in the Wyoming legislature.

Now, he’s director of the Wyoming chapter of NORML. He said he resents the implication that a support for a change in law makes you a pothead. For him, it’s about what’s the best policy for the citizens of Wyoming.

Considering his experience in politics, he has a lot of bridges to politicians. Based on conversations he’s had, he doesn’t have a real optimistic view of reform for the near-term. He doesn’t think, however, there’s any drive to strengthen marijuana prohibition.

“I don’t think there’s any heart in the House to raise penalties,” Latta said.

“Watching the legislative process is like watching someone make sausage. You don’t want to do it because it will make you sick.” – Frank Latta

In the Senate, it may be the same story. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), president of the Wyoming Senate and former speaker of the House, said he wouldn’t consider any moves toward legalizing recreational marijuana. He also thinks more research is necessary before permitting the drug to be legally prescribed.

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

However, when it comes to decreasing penalties, he takes a softer stance, saying there may be ways to pursue civil justice than the current laws.

“I think we ought to look at our statutes,” Bebout said.

Latta also points out that were medical or recreational marijuana legislation introduced and actually made it all the way to a law, opponents can still kill a law.

“Watching the legislative process is like watching someone make sausage. You don’t want to do it because it will make you sick,” he said.

To kill a law

He points to what happened to Wyoming’s ill-fated hemp law.

Hemp is used in industrial processes and cannot be smoked. Some say it has a lot of potential in Wyoming as an agricultural product.

In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill permitting a pilot program for hemp. Governor Matt Mead didn’t sign it. Instead he let it sit on his desk, and after three days, as per Wyoming law, the bill passed.

Then, when the Department of Agriculture sought appropriations to fund the equipment needed to test hemp crops, the Legislature didn’t fund it. So, the program is effectively dead.

“There’s more than one way to kill a law,” Latta said.

Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said he would like to see that change in the upcoming session. He said the hemp law was an acknowledgement that the plant is beneficial.

“That is one thing I’m interested in—having that conversation,” Barlow said.

Barlow also said he advocated a change to federal law to permit more medical marijuana research. Currently, marijuana is Schedule I, which means it’s in the same category as heroin—no viable medical potential and a high risk for abuse.

It’s this policy that limits the research medical marijuana opponents say is necessary before they’re comfortable with permitting its medical use. And this means, technically, no matter what changes in law in the states, marijuana is still illegal across the country for any purpose—recreational, industrial, or medical.

But the federal government is joining the growing states’ conversation, albeit in a much more limited way. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel proposed the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which would remove hemp from Schedule I.

Various other legislation reforming federal marijuana laws has been introduced over the past few years. None got far enough to matter.

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

Four corners

At Four Corners National Monument, where the borders of four states meet, an adult over 21 can stand in Colorado with a joint in his pocket and face no criminal sanctions. Take a step south to New Mexico and that same adult faces a minor ticket. A step west to Arizona, and the same adult faces a felony with jail times up to two years and a $150,000 fine. Take a step north to Utah, and the penalty is reduced to only six months and a $1,000 fine.

The country, as far as marijuana goes, is becoming a patchwork of laws varying in the extreme.

Barlow said, with the current laws in Wyoming, a person with a legal medical marijuana prescription from another state traveling through Wyoming could face a serious penalty for what would be legal back home.

Likewise, he said people are probably leaving Wyoming for medical treatments they can’t get here, or even to purchase marijuana legally for their own personal use.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s happening,” he said.

Considering how many states have hopped on the medical and recreational bandwagon, and all the polls showing growing support for both across the country, it’s surprising how slowly the federal government is to consider any changes.

The same is true for Wyoming. Barlow said if the state continues to resist changes he believes, like many other legislators, are needed, we could find ourselves as landlocked in policy as we are in geography.

For Martin of Better Wyoming, this pattern is typical of the Cowboy State.

“Wyoming is a late adopter across the board,” Martin said.

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at kevin@county17.com or 701-641-6603.