Timing is right for Wyoming to finally legalize marijuana

Opinion by Kerry Drake, WyoFile

For years I’ve heard people say Wyoming lawmakers will never legalize marijuana, and if they do, we’ll be the last state to go down that road.

I’ve generally agreed with that sentiment, primarily because voters who say they want the government to stay out of their lives keep electing legislators intent on doing the opposite. They pass laws taking away women’s reproductive freedom, sponsor anti-LGBTQ bills and zealously work to restrict people’s right to vote.

To think that a majority of this bunch would let Wyomingites smoke a joint in the privacy of their homes seems like a fantasy. A “devil’s weed” mentality has dominated the Legislature for as long as I can remember. I’ve listened to countless hours of testimony about how marijuana is a gateway drug, just as dangerous as heroin and the scourge of a decent society.

Legislators have occasionally sponsored bills to decriminalize cannabis possession or allow medical marijuana over the years, but they are always shot down by overwhelming margins.

Will the 2021 session be any different when it comes to passing a comprehensive, reasonable law regulating marijuana in Wyoming? It just might be. The House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana by a 6-3 vote last Friday.

The measure now goes to the full House, where it should get a fair hearing. House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) is a co-sponsor.

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The bill’s primary sponsor, House Majority Whip Jared Olsen, is a Republican Cheyenne attorney who will never remind anyone of Cheech or Chong. He’s a conservative who says he’s never even tried marijuana. Olsen even started out on the opposite side of the issue, trying to close a loophole a few years ago that allowed for edible marijuana products without penalties.

But in 2021, he leads a band of strange political bedfellows that consists of moderate Republicans, progressive Democrats, the body’s lone Libertarian and GOP conservatives with a libertarian bent. Collectively, they know unfair drug laws when they see them, and the Equality State has some of the harshest statutes on the books.

Wyoming is one of only six states that totally prohibit marijuana. Possession of any quantity up to 3 ounces — even residue in a pipe — is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine.

A marijuana conviction may make a young person ineligible for student loans and bar them from many federal or state jobs. It can be a case of one strike and you’re out.

Most of HB 209’s supporters — even Olsen — don’t expect the bill to pass this session. Instead, they say they want to start a serious discussion about the issue that could ultimately lead to its approval.

But here are eight reasons why the time to enact an enlightened marijuana law is right now:

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  1. Public perception. A University of Wyoming Survey Analysis Center poll conducted in December found that 54% of Wyoming residents support allowing adults to legally possess marijuana for personal use. Meanwhile, 85% backed medical marijuana.
  2. New revenue. Wyoming is hurting for money, with legislators trying to slash funding for education, health and social services in order to balance the state budget. The Department of Revenue estimates state and local governments could see up to $50 million per year from a 30% excise tax on retail marijuana sales at dispensaries plus licensure fees. That includes about $30 million for public schools.
  3. Criminal justice reform. It doesn’t make economic sense to keep locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses. A Department of Corrections fact sheet sent to legislators doesn’t break down whether individuals convicted of marijuana possession had other drug-related offenses. But 335 Wyoming inmates are now incarcerated for pot, and each inmate costs about $42,340 annually. Another 2,501 are on supervision, which costs $2,125 per offender per year. Add ‘em up and it’s almost $20 million.
  4. Reasonable limits. Under the bill, adults over 21 can have up to 3 ounces of flower, 16 ounces of edible cannabis product, 72 ounces of liquid product and up to 30 grams of concentrate. Adults would also have the legal option to cultivate up to a dozen flowering, female plants at home that could yield up to 16 ounces of cannabis.
  5. Humanitarian concerns. One reason why public support is so strong for medical marijuana is that people understand cannabis helps relieve pain and improves the quality of life for patients with cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, migraines, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other medical conditions. Legislators may have family members or friends who have benefited from marijuana use, and that can influence their votes.
  6. Alternatives to other drugs. Addiction and overuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, is a widespread problem. In 2018, Wyoming had 40 drug overdose deaths involving opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Unlike many prescription drugs, which can be highly addictive, marijuana is not known to cause dependence in most users.
  7. Public pressure. Never underestimate the power of lobbying legislators, whether it’s in person or via phone calls and emails. Four of the nine House Judiciary Committee members signed onto HB 209, which meant only one more was needed to win approval. Two swing voters — Reps. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) and Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) — said while they may ultimately vote no on the bill, strong public reaction on both sides of the issue convinced them to support bringing it to the House floor for debate.
  8. Heading off a referendum. Many legislators bristle at the thought of voters taking it upon themselves to pass laws, which is one reason the state is among the strictest in the country for public access to ballot initiatives. Four of Wyoming’s neighboring states — Colorado, Utah, Montana and South Dakota — took the referendum route to some form of legalization. While obtaining enough registered voters’ signatures for a ballot initiative could be expensive, it’s not necessarily cost-prohibitive for a group with deep pockets. I’ve heard several legislators say they would rather craft marijuana laws themselves than have to amend the voters’ handiwork.

Despite all the reasons in favor of passing HB 209, I know it’s an uphill battle. Law enforcement will intensely lobby against the measure, as it has fought similar bills for years, and that alone may sink this year’s effort.

But it’s difficult for me to understand why so many Wyoming legislators still think we’re living in the age of “Reefer Madness,” where marijuana is corrupting our youth and destroying society’s moral values.

I’m a baby boomer, and I don’t know many people of my generation who haven’t at least tried marijuana. I can’t imagine that legislators my age, even the most conservative ones, all had bad experiences.

I’ve known several people who have ruined their minds and bodies abusing alcohol and other drugs, habits that often lead to reckless or deadly behavior that puts others at risk. But for the most part, I think people who use marijuana tend to be laid back and not prone to engage in violence.

People don’t belong in prison for using a plant that has been around for thousands of years and benefits people with myriad health conditions. If you believe Wyoming is an independent, live-and-let-live state, please tell your senator or representative that just having a nice conversation about marijuana laws and kicking the can down the road again won’t cut it this year.

It’s time for them to lead on this issue or get out of the way.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.