CHEYENNE – Wyoming is one of six states where marijuana remains completely illegal without any decriminalization. That could change in the near future, however, as lawmakers tabled a bill on Friday that would open the door to growing and selling cannabis in Wyoming.
Members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee examined two marijuana-related bills during their meeting on Friday, one of which would require the state health officer to prepare a report on medical marijuana implementation in Wyoming. While that proposal was not approved by the committee, the other bill, which includes a detailed roadmap to approve the legalization and regulation of marijuana, received the committee’s approval by 6-3 votes.
Legislators heard several hours of testimony during their Friday meeting, with public comment limited to a few minutes per person due to the large number of people willing to speak.
The committee first heard from Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, the main sponsor of House Bill 82, who would approve an implementation report on medical marijuana. Henderson described the proposal as a good start in setting the parameters for medical marijuana use in the state.
“To me, it’s not a question of whether we’re going to legalize marijuana – it’s a question of when,” said Henderson.
“I think Wyoming needs to be at the forefront, just like we do in other areas like blockchain technology, sandbox, etc. in terms of the legislation needed to get things moving when they need and have that line of communication to install.”
Although Henderson’s proposal was not put forward by the committee on Friday, his points were pertinent to the larger discussion as other lawmakers also mentioned the likelihood of marijuana legalization in Wyoming, either through extensive federal action under the new presidential administration or through an electoral initiative in the state.
The increasing possibility of legalization was one reason Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, put forward his proposal to House Bill 209, which would allow the cultivation and sale of marijuana and products such as food in the state.
Olsen, chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, said he was not a “marijuana attorney,” a University of Wyoming poll last year found 54% of citizens support legalizing marijuana for personal use – up from 37% In the same poll, the most recent poll also found that 85% of Wyoming residents support medical marijuana legalization.
With increasing support for marijuana use and the growing possibility of national legalization, Olsen argued that his law would allow lawmakers to “put our arms around it and decide it should look like this” instead of waiting to go respond to what could happen at the federal level.
Legalizing marijuana in Wyoming could also bring the state a financial slump. With a 30% excise tax included in the bill, legalization would bring the state around $ 47 million annually, of which approximately $ 30 million would be used to fund public schools, according to the bill’s projections.
These numbers were based on estimates by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture that legalization would bring 100 grow facilities, 50 manufacturing facilities, 25 safe vans, five test facilities, 200 retail stores and 50 “micro-businesses” to the state. Olsen conceded that these estimates could be higher than in reality, but was confident that some job creation would come through legalization.
“The reality is that if there was a cultivator, it would be new jobs in Wyoming,” said Olsen.
In addition to the potential of legalization for job creation and new tax revenue, other proponents of Olsen’s bill spoke about the medical benefits the drug can bring to some people. Rep. Mark Baker, R-Green River, who co-funded both of the bills the committee considered, described his history of serious digestive problems that began during his military service and resulted in his colon removed.
“Part of the time (since that procedure) I’ve used access to cannabis, and I can tell you this: life is much easier physically with cannabis than it is without,” said Baker.
Olsen’s bill would also ban the use of marijuana in public, which means that people are only allowed to smoke or use marijuana in their private homes.
While several co-sponsors of Olsen’s bill spoke for the legislature, the opinions of members of the public who testified were more mixed.
Some, like Baker, emphasized the medicinal benefits of marijuana. Frank Latta, a former lawmaker and former mayor of Gillette, told the committee about his struggles with multiple sclerosis, which resulted in his being prescribed an opioid. Withdrawal from the drug, Latta said, caused heroine-like withdrawal symptoms.
“When I went to these doctors, every doctor told me that I would be much better off using marijuana to treat my spasticity problems than an opioid,” Latta said. “You become addicted to the opioid because when you take opioids … they lose their effects, so you keep taking more and more and more you get more and more addicted. ”
Others who testified were concerned about the potential impact marijuana could have on Wyoming youth. Luke Niforatos, a Colorado-based executive vice president of the nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana, pointed out several states, such as California and Nevada, where teenage marijuana use has increased since the drug was legalized. He also argued that legalization would not eliminate the black market for marijuana in Wyoming, as states like California have seen their illegal pot markets boom in the years since legalization.
Susan Gore, the founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, who said she speaks as a private individual, spoke out against the proposals because of the potential risks to babies whose mothers smoke marijuana while pregnant.
The Wyoming Medical Society, meanwhile, took an oppositional stance on medical marijuana and a neutral position on broader legalization legislation. Executive Director Sheila Bush told the committee that the organization’s position was largely due to the lack of a federal regulatory environment for the study of medical marijuana, which made it difficult for doctors to guide patients.
“You have a population and a desired substance and you put doctors in the middle as gatekeepers and then kind of hang them up to dry because there is no evidence of how these recommendations can be safely made. Bush told the committee.
Legislators on the committee also heard from former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, who now lives in Teton County. Chafee virtually testified, like many others who spoke to the committee, and endorsed Olsen’s bill that would create a “lucrative” new source of income for the state.
“We all want this income to be used for necessary government services and taxes to remain low,” said Chafee.
Due to time constraints, the committee had to close public comments, although many people still hoped to speak on the matter. The members of the House Judiciary Committee then put forward Bill 209 by 6-3 votes.
Although the bill was pushed forward by a two-to-one lead, some who voted in favor of it were reluctant to get the bill finally approved. Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, said he was personally against legalization but, given the “hundreds” of emails from his constituents on the matter, wanted to have the whole House debate.
“I’ll be voting for it, but I’ll most likely be a no on the floor,” said Crago.
His stance was similar to that of Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, who said she was keen to table an amendment requiring Wyoming counties to opt for marijuana farms rather than the opt-out provision in the current one Bill.
“I’m not sure we’re ready for this, but I think at this point I’ll join Rep Crago and say that maybe the community is interested enough to move it forward and get voters to speak to their reps Let’s get that down to the ground, ”said Oakley.
The votes against House Bill 209 came from Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell; Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody; and Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper. The votes for the legislation came from Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne; Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson; and Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, along with Olsen, Crago, and Oakley.
With the committee’s 6-3 vote, House Bill 209 will receive a House Floor hearing at some point in the coming weeks of the Legislative Session, which ends April 2nd.