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Wyoming holding out as other states legalize marijuana

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In the eight years since Colorado legalized marijuana, it's been an open question whether Wyoming would someday follow the lead of its southerly neighbor.

So far, that hasn't happened.

Lawmakers did legalize hemp and CBD products in 2019. Both lack marijuana's psychoactive properties, but remain taboo among some state lawmakers. And Wyoming's criminal penalties for marijuana possession remain among the nation's harshest.

Meanwhile, even the most modest reforms brought before Wyoming lawmakers have faltered. A 2019 bill legalizing medical marijuana failed to get a hearing on the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives, while proposals to reduce Wyoming's criminal penalties for marijuana have gained little traction among the state's conservative lawmakers, many of whom still see the substance as a gateway to abusing more serious drugs.

"Currently, Wyoming statutes (around cannabis) are unrealistic," said Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, an attorney and marijuana reform advocate whose law firm has developed a reputation for defending both minor and serious marijuana cases around Wyoming. "We've tried to address that in the Judiciary Committee. And we spent three years working on cannabis law reform and made no progress. I remember telling National Public Radio once that I have not spent this much time listening to people talk pointlessly about weed since I was in high school."

Even efforts organized by voters themselves have failed to gain traction, partly due to Wyoming's challenging ballot initiative process and an electorate that remains divided on the issue. Though attitudes toward marijuana have been warming, Wyoming voters remain divided on allowing adults to possess and consume cannabis for personal, recreational use, according to a 2018 University of Wyoming poll on the topic. (Attitudes toward the plant's medical usage remain overwhelmingly high.)

While the state has dragged its feet, Wyoming's tribal governments have contemplated bringing medical marijuana to the Wind River Reservation, a culmination of sovereignty efforts around marijuana legislation begun with the passage of a 2015 resolution by the National Congress of American Indians supporting local jurisdiction over legalization.

Some, however, are beginning to wonder if 2021 could be the year that all changes.

With the Nov. 3 election, voters in four Wyoming border states — Colorado, Utah, Montana, and South Dakota — have now voted to legalize the consumption of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use.

Meanwhile, high levels of public support and the more than two dozen new faces arriving in the Legislature have several lawmakers confident that the 2021 session could present an opportunity to kickstart the conversation on some form of legalization. At least three Republican lawmakers plan to introduce cannabis reform bills this winter in the hope they could inspire a study of legal cannabis in the 2021 interim session.

"We just want to get the discussion going," said Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, who has been working on drafting a medical marijuana bill as well as a Virginia-style decriminalization bill. "I was looking at a map this morning of states who have voted to legalize it, and we are literally an island."

Mixed views on marijuana

Legislators have flirted with the prospect of marijuana reform over the years.

In Cheyenne, Republican lawmakers have teamed up with national reform groups like NORML to promote the economic and medicinal benefits of a legalized and regulated marijuana market, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have regularly co-sponsored bills looking to ease penalties for possession or explore the prospect of legalizing cannabis for medical use. Then Gov. Matt Mead even created a panel in 2016 to assess the effects of marijuana usage ahead of a ballot initiative effort on the matter, ultimately finding that a medical marijuana program would actually cost the state money.

There remains stiff opposition to easing laws on marijuana. Gov. Mark Gordon has said in the past that he opposes adult-use legislation and is skeptical on the issue of medical cannabis, while groups such as the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police remain adamantly opposed to legalization, even producing a 2018 advertising campaign designed to dissuade people from using marijuana and other elicit substances.

The learning curve among conservatives remains steep. At the request of local law enforcement, Powell Republican Rep. R.J. Kost announced his intention to introduce a bill this session banning the possession and sale of hemp for smoking, an eyebrow-raising proposition given that even smokable hemp products have no psychoactive properties and the plants themselves are already subject to intensive regulation by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.

Those sentiments represent a division among Wyoming lawmakers and particularly, among conservatives, who have traditionally seen easing restrictions on marijuana as a battle between civil liberties and law and order.

"Among conservative lawmakers, there's a contingent that speaks by their values of being for small government, and individual freedom," said Nate Martin, a Wyoming native and executive director of the progressive advocacy group, Better Wyoming. "And then there's another contingent for whom conservatism means kind of a different thing. It means more law and order, it means punitive measures against people who don't act 'properly,' whatever that term 'properly' means."

A red state case for green

Nearly three dozen states have already voted to legalize or decriminalize marijuana possession. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll published Monday showed support for legalizing marijuana rose to 68% among adults in the U.S. the highest-such number in the poll's nearly 50-year history.

Though successful legalization efforts in conservative states such as South Dakota and Montana show signs that something is shifting, Republicans remain more hesitant: A slim majority of conservatives surveyed by Gallup remain opposed to legalizing marijuana, according to that poll.

However, it's largely middle-of-the-road voters who decide if marijuana is legalized. In red states, that tends to include a coalition of engaged moderates, Democrats, and civil liberties-minded Republicans.

"The reality is that the electorate does not see marijuana legalization as a partisan issue," Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML, said in an interview with the Star-Tribune. "When the question goes to the ballot — regardless of whether we're talking about a stereotypical red state like Montana, or Arkansas or South Dakota or Utah or a stereotypically blue state like Massachusetts or California — the result is the same: the electorate chooses 'yes.'"

Marijuana advocates have failed to get an initiative on the Wyoming ballot, leaving the state reliant solely on the will of the Legislature to pass any type of marijuana reform. In those instances, Armentano said, the divide over legalization tends to be greater in states predominantly governed by Republican majorities than by Democratic ones.

Bridging that divide, lawmakers say, will involve a strategy to win over a slim plurality of lawmakers, rather than appealing to the masses.

"We don't have to change everyone's minds," said Green River Republican Mark Baker — a newly elected legislator who during his last stint in office was one of the Wyoming House of Representatives' biggest champions for marijuana reform. "We just have to get a simple majority on the issue. Some other people may look for an overwhelming majority, but I'd just like to see something move forward."

That's not to say it's impossible. After Utah voters chose to legalize marijuana at the ballot box, their Republican-dominated legislature quickly repealed the measure before passing their own regulatory framework to give patients access to the drug, a stunning reversal for a legislative body long defined by its social conservatism.

The main driver of that effort were the personal narratives of people like Christine Stenquist – a Utah-based marijuana reform advocate and a leading figure in the state's reform efforts.

The daughter of a former narcotics agent, Stenquist's support for legalization came after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1996, leading to decades of pain and no solution to mitigate the symptoms. After a number of synthetic solutions failed to address the chronic pain she experienced, Stenquist began researching the effects of THC in pain management. With the blessing of her father, she managed to obtain a sample of the drug illicitly.

Ultimately, it worked. And from then on, Stenquist made it her mission to ensure others could seek out medicine that worked without fear of incarceration. Last year, she succeeded. Today, she is helping a number of Wyoming lawmakers develop a blueprint for legalizing medicinal marijuana here.

The key to getting there, Stenquist said, is giving lawmakers a practical understanding of how medicinal marijuana can work. While shown not to be a revenue driver for Wyoming, medicinal cannabis could help to offset the ill effects of self-medication by patients while potentially taking some stress off of the state's criminal justice system. According to a 2018 survey by the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, more than 12% of all arrests in Wyoming were marijuana-related, a higher rate than methamphetamine.

"We have an opioid epidemic here," Stenquist said in an interview with the Star-Tribune. "About 26 people a month die in our state. We know that Wyoming struggles with these drug addiction issues, too ... When patients are allowed access to medical cannabis, in a regulated form, we see a decrease in the number of opioids that are prescribed to our patients."

The effort in Wyoming is also buoyed by the successful legalization drives in other states. This winter, Baker said he plans to bring a legalization bill based off a model initially passed in Oklahoma that has since become a healthy driver of revenue for the state. Despite numerous flaws, the program has remained highly popular with voters, with patients still subject to physician approval before qualifying for a marijuana card.

While Baker said he acknowledges the potential for abuse of the system, he said that Wyoming should make patient access its main priority, adding that he hoped to involve an initiative to discourage abuse as a component of the bill.

"I think the model they've had is really successful," he said in an interview. "Utah and Oklahoma's programs were both started around the same time, and Oklahoma's seems to be much further along and offers greater access. It's important that if we're going to do it, that we do it right."

Though the possibility of Wyoming waiting for federal action before approving a marijuana program — like it did with hemp — is the most realistic conclusion, Baker said that delaying action will only cause the state to fall further behind the rest of the nation, and continue to lose tax revenues to surrounding states. Soon, revenues will also be siphoned to places like Montana and South Dakota, the latter of which is projected to have an active retail market for marijuana by 2022.

"With the direction the nation is going, Wyoming's citizenry is now put in a position where we're criminalized by something that will be readily available in other states," he said. "I hope there's at least a willingness to listen to the discussion, if nothing else."

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