WHEATLAND – Wyoming lawmakers advanced legislative options Thursday as they attempt to close loopholes in marijuana laws for the fourth consecutive year.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee voted to narrowly advance two different draft bills to the 2018 budget session relating to the possession of marijuana and other products infused with its intoxicating agent, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
The problem comes from a surge of non-plant-form marijuana products – such as liquids and edibles infused with THC – coming into Wyoming from Colorado, where recreational use of the drug is legal. Wyoming courts have faced challenges in interpreting state statute when people are caught with non-plant products, especially when it comes to applying felony charges for those possessing amounts above and beyond what’s likely for personal use.
Currently, possession of 3 ounces or more of marijuana in plant form is considered a felony in Wyoming.
The issue becomes complicated when the drug is mixed with other legal elements in the edible and liquid forms. While a brownie or soda infused with THC might weigh more than 3 ounces, for example, crime labs have yet to refine techniques that reliably discern how much of the illegal substance is contained.
Sarah Barrett of the Wyoming State Crime Lab reported to lawmakers Thursday that no new advances have been made since the last session that might make it easier to discern those elements. This has led to some hesitancy on the part of lawmakers worried they would be voting for laws that could apply felony charges for relatively minor offenses.
Lawmakers were able to advance a bill to the 2017 session codifying what amount of non-plant form THC products could be considered a felony, but a back and forth between the House and Senate stymied the legislation.
One of the two bills advanced Thursday during the committee meeting in Wheatland was essentially a resurrected version of the 2017 bill. It expands the definition of marijuana products to include items such as baked goods, candies, ointments and potable liquids, codifying that possession of more than 3 ounces of any of those products – regardless of the THC concentration – is a felony.
The second bill breaks down different products, assigning weights respectively. For example, possessing drinkable liquids comprising 36 fluid ounces or more could constitute a felony. On the other hand, 3 or more grams of a liquid – like that in the form of a concentrated oil – could be considered a felony.
Reflecting on the previous years’ failed attempts, Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said moving both bills forward was the right move.
“There’s been substantial differences between what the House wants to do and what the Senate wants to do,” he said. “I think it’s important we move both bills forward with the idea that maybe we’ll actually be able to provide the courts some clarity and certainty for law enforcement with either/or of these. We’re four years into this process, so it’s incumbent on the Legislature to get something done.”
But even with two bills going to the big show in February, the question remains as to what’s different this time around. For Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, long outspoken in his opposition to stiffening penalties for personal possession of marijuana and related products, the situation seems very similar to previous attempts.
“I think we’re still at an impasse,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on this in the last four years, and it’s not like today had a magic solution. The bottom line is we’re still turning Wyoming citizens into felons for relatively minor amounts of a drug that 20 miles south of Cheyenne is totally legal.”
Another failed attempt at legislative action in 2018 would add to mounting concerns for law enforcement, said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. With new products constantly manifesting in different forms, he said Wyoming is behind in specifying what products are illegal for possession in the state, and in what amount.
And the potency of THC products is significantly elevated from when Wyoming’s marijuana statutes were crafted. Certain commercially available liquids, Oedekoven said, contain more than 40 servings in just more than 8 ounces. Such products are like a moving target, complicating matters in defining what should be considered a misdemeanor and what should be felonious.
Oedekoven said it’s too early to tell whether these bills have a better chance than their predecessors.
“My glass is always half full, so I’m optimistic,” he said.