Wyoming: Marijuana regulation bill heads to House floor

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Members of the House Judiciary Committee want the entire Wyoming House to debate a bill that would legalize marijuana for adult personal use and establish a regulated retail market, voting 6-3 Friday to send the measure to the floor.

The committee advanced House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana after about four hours of testimony from a spectrum of witnesses ranging from the state’s leading libertarian to the former governor of Rhode Island. Depending on the speaker, marijuana is either an addictive substance packaged for and marketed to children whose brains it re-wires, or an adult product less harmful than a beer consumed in leisure times to relax.

Witnesses ran the gamut from an anti-pot activist to a doctor, a former vice presidential candidate, a convicted drug felon, a medical patient who uses and another patient who wishes he could. The bill would regulate marijuana establishments — from retail shops to greenhouses to transport and testing businesses — and would allow personal cultivation and private use.

Reps. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) and Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) cast swing votes to advance the bill to the House floor. They didn’t commit to voting for its ultimate passage.

Oakley, a Fremont County prosecutor, said she was torn over the issue and warned of a variety of costs that legal use could bring. Marijuana can’t be prescribed by a doctor, she said underscoring federal prohibitions, so “it’s hard to think we would legalize it.”

Crago, an attorney and rancher, is “against legalizing marijuana,” he said. But after being bombarded by emails both for and against, he said it is time for a whole-House debate.

Opponents raised worries. Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) voted against the bill “for the sake of preserving the Wyoming family unit,” and in support of law enforcement. Committee member Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) opposed the bill saying if he were to challenge federal law he would start with the Endangered Species Act, not marijuana prohibitions.

Opponent Dan Laursen (R-Powell) raised questions about hospitalization rates and other issues arising in Colorado from marijuana legalization there.

Co-sponsors Michael Yin (D-Jackson), Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) and Dan Zwonitzer (R- Cheyenne) backed lead sponsor Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), chairman of the committee. “I’ll be voting for liberty today,” Olsen said as the measure succeeded.

A year in the making

Olsen spent a year crafting the bill, modeling it after Virginia statute, he said. He showed a map of nearby states where marijuana is used under regulations and raised the possibility of federal action to essentially decriminalize the drug “possibly within a year.”

“Then who decides what the regulation of marijuana is like in Wyoming?” Olsen asked.


Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, asks a question during the House Judiciary Committee meeting March 11, 2021. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Penalties for driving under the influence, supplying minors and other infractions would not change. “I don’t come from the camp that says I want to see the laws relaxed,” he said.

The bill would tax retail sales at 30%, raising an estimated $50 million annually. Licensing will be strict, prohibiting “anyone who is not a resident of Wyoming … not of moral character,” he said.

“We’re going to fingerprint ’em,” Olsen said of marijuana license holders.

Committee members quizzed state bureaucrats before Olsen, chairman of the committee, turned to the public. Support for his bill came from several quarters.

The wholesale regulation proposed in Olsen’s 122-page bill is superior to the medical-only “halfway approach” said Lincoln Chafee, former Rhode Island governor who now lives in Jackson Hole. He inherited Rhode Island’s medical-only statutes in 2011 upon becoming governor, he said over a Zoom link.

“I recommend keeping as much control as possible over every aspect of this endeavor,” Chafee said.

The 2012 Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate, Jim Gray, also backed Olsen, saying “as soon as you prohibit a substance, you give up all your control to the bad guys.” Gray, a retired California judge, continued his outspoken criticism of American drug laws.

“You are not condoning the use of marijuana,” Gray said of Olsen’s bill. “You are taking a lot of money away from Mexican drug cartels, motorcycle gangs, thugs. No state in the U.S. has legalized marijuana,” he said. “You’re talking about regulating.”

Rep. Mark Baker (R-Green River) told the committee marijuana helped him recover from a serious intestinal condition and major surgery. 

Former representative Frank Lata, meanwhile, told of how Wyoming’s law’s pushed him to addictive opioids to treat his multiple sclerosis.

“Every doctor has told me, ‘you would be much better served using marijuana,’” he said. Lata dismissed worries about medical testing and efficacy. “Every medicine I have been on has been experimental,” he said.

Utah marijuana advocate Justin Arriola told the committee a person would have to consume about 6 tons of marijuana in one session to die from it. “It’s almost impossible to use enough cannabis product to cause a fatality,” he said.

He also countered anti-regulation witnesses who used “fear tactics,” he said, in rolling out a litany of evils caused by marijuana in other states.

Opposition remains stiff

Luke Niforatos, an anti-marijuana activist associated with the Colorado Smart Approaches to Marijuana group, claimed youth use is increasing in states that allow marijuana, an increase he tied to a more permissive attitude toward the drug. “Concerning data” shows increasing hospitalizations and other problems, he said. 

“The cartels and gangs and drug dealers have made more money than ever,” he said. “They use a lot of chemicals that have killed a number of endangered species of spotted owls.”

State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist responded to a question, saying “there is certainly information out there that about one in every 10 marijuana users will become addicted.” Arriola said studies show 6% to 9% of users have a propensity for addiction.

Susan Gore, founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, opposed the bill saying, among other things, that marijuana rewires children’s brains. The bill would allow adult use only.

“I had the experience of inhaling and experiencing the dopamine rush,” she said of an encounter with the drug. “I didn’t get addicted to my experience.

“My main point [is] to plead for the brains of the children of Wyoming,” she said. “I know that marijuana is particularly promoted to women and to children.” In states where it’s regulated, “there’s an increase in damaged babies,” Gore claimed.

The bill was not scheduled for floor consideration by early Monday. Thursday is the last day for bills to be considered in their chamber of origin. The committee didn’t act on a second marijuana bill – House Bill 82 — Implementation requirements for medical marijuana, so that measure died.

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