Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

Wyoming columnist

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, 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.

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

This year the House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 209 — Regulation of marijuana by a 6-3 vote.

The primary sponsor, House Majority Whip Jared Olsen, is a Cheyenne attorney who 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.

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

1. Public perception. A University of Wyoming Survey Analysis Center poll in December found 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 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.

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 include 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 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.

7. Public pressure. Four of the nine House Judiciary Committee members signed onto HB 209, so only one more was needed to win approval. Two swing voters 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at kerry.drake33@yahoo.com.

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