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Frank Latta, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on the need to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana during a meeting on Jan. 31, 2017, at the Jonah Business Center. Blaine McCartney/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – A legislative committee on Tuesday voted to make changes to Wyoming’s marijuana laws, but didn’t go so far as to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.

The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill creating a tiered system for marijuana penalties but rejected a bill that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, as well as a bill that would have provided reciprocity for out-of-state medical marijuana cards in Wyoming.

The reform bill will go to the full House of Representatives.

Marijuana penalty reform

The committee passed House Bill 197, which establishes a tiered penalty system for marijuana possession in which penalties increase each time a person is caught with marijuana or a marijuana-infused product.

The bill also establishes a 10-year look-back period, which means only crimes that happened within the same 10 year period can count as subsequent offenses.

Under the proposed law, someone caught with less than 3 ounces of marijuana in plant form or 8 ounces of a marijuana-infused product would face a fine of up to $200 and/or 20 days in jail for a first offense.

A second conviction within 10 years would raise the penalties to a fine of up to $750 and/or up to six months in jail, and a third conviction would carry a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to two years in jail.

Fourth and subsequent convictions within 10 years would be a felony penalty, carrying a fine of up to $10,000 and up to five years in jail.

Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the goal of the bill is to close the gap in state law dealing with marijuana edibles.

The “edibles loophole” refers to the situation in Wyoming law that does not adequately address edibles, compared with the plant form of marijuana.

Current law stipulates that possession of fewer than 3 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor, and higher larger amounts constitute a felony.

However, a Laramie County judge ruled in 2015 that a person could only be charged with felony possession of marijuana in plant form – not edible forms, like candy and cookies. Possession of edibles can still be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, however.

The Legislature has attempted to close the “edible loophole” in the past, but lawmakers have been unable to come to an agreement on the issue.

In September, the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee discussed a complete overhaul of marijuana punishments that would have created a tiered system of penalties for all forms of marijuana. But at its November meeting, that same committee declined to move forward with that bill.

Law enforcement entities spoke in favor of Olsen’s bill, saying it gave clarity to how to deal with edibles.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7-1, sending it on to the full House for consideration.

Olsen and Reps. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester; Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan; Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie; Bill Pownall, R-Gillette; Tim Salazar, R-Dubois; and Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, voted in favor. Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, voted against.

House Bill 197 is sponsored by Olsen, Jennings, Pownall, Salazar and Winters, as well as Reps. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne; Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne; Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Danny Eyre, R-Lyman; Dan Furphy, R-Laramie; Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne; and Lars Lone, R-Cheyenne; and Sens. Leland Christensen, R-Alta; Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower; and Larry Hicks, R-Baggs.

But while the bill passed the committee, others felt the Legislature should go a step further and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Decriminalization

Baker introduced House Bill 157, which would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, switching the penalty to a civil fine of $200 instead of the current misdemeanor.

The bill would have applied to less than 3 ounces of plant marijuana and less than 500 milligrams of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana – in a product.

Baker said decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana would save law enforcement and court time and said he thinks the federal government is moving toward rescheduling marijuana, which could open up more legalization of the drug.

“If the state doesn’t recognize that, we’re going to be behind the game,” he said.

Baker said the bill also “ensures our state doesn’t criminalize people’s medical treatment,” referring to medical marijuana patients.

One woman with multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease, testified before the committee as to the effect of using marijuana to treat the disease.

But others had concerns over whether or not decriminalization and medical marijuana are separate issues.

Albany County Prosecutor Peggy Trent also said she had concerns whether decriminalization would lead to more people driving under the influence of marijuana.

Committee members voted down the decriminalization bill.

Reps. Baker, Biteman and Pelkey were in favor; Reps. Jennings, Olsen, Winters, Kirkbride and Salazar were against.

Despite the vote, some members of the committee said they were evolving on the issue of medical marijuana, particularly after hearing from supporters during the meeting.

More marijuana bills

In addition to the House Judiciary Committee’s marijuana-related work Tuesday, Baker and Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, have introduced a constitutional amendment that would fully legalize marijuana in Wyoming, with the tax proceeds from sales going to education and the general fund.

If that amendment passes the Legislature, voters would see it on the ballot in 2018.

Following the November general election, recreational marijuana is or will be legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts.

Medical marijuana is legal in more than half the states in the country, including Colorado and Montana.

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