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Wyoming NORML: Casper DEA-funded marijuana crackdown ‘an incredible waste of resources’

A marijuana legalization supporter at rally outside the Wyoming Capitol. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

CASPER, Wyo. — Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters said on Saturday that “there is a tolerance for the use of methamphetamine in this community that is unmistakable.”

His comments came after a ceremony in which retired Casper Police Officer Jacob Carlson and Casper Police Officer Randi Garrett were awarded the Congressional Badge of Bravery. Carlson suffered multiple gunshot wounds in an exchange of gunfire with an armed suspect May 6 of 2018. The suspect was killed, and Carlson required multiple surgeries to overcome the life-threatening injuries.

McPheeters said that methamphetamine frequently plays a role in other crimes in the community, such as homicides and other violent crimes, kidnapping, extortions and thefts.

The police department has been facing some criticism surrounding a March 29-30 “drug interdiction operation” in which law enforcement agencies in the area arrested 23 people. United States Drug Enforcement Agency “cannabis suppression” funding supported the operation.

While the DEA says their “Domestic Cannabis Suppression / Eradication Program” strives to “halt the spread of cannabis cultivation in the United States” and “targets Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO) involved in cannabis cultivation,” McPheeters said DEA funded operations in the Casper area help target more than only marijuana.

“In that operation we are just as likely to come across methamphetamine and the impacts of methamphetamine and the tentacles of methamphetamine than we are marijuana,” McPheeters said. “But everybody wants to focus on the marijuana and claim that this is a waste of money when in fact we are absolutely improving traffic safety, we are reducing crashes, we are reducing crime.”

Regarding people who are critical of law enforcement operations aiming to suppress marijuana, McPheeters said: “The ones who want to talk about it as being specifically marijuana, they are just naive on what we are really accomplishing.”

The Casper PD said that the March operations resulted in the seizure of 520.82 grams of marijuana, 600 mg THC edibles, 1 gram THC wax, 66.7 grams of methamphetamine and one gram of cocaine.

The PD said that the operation uncovered “multiple vehicles with user amounts of marijuana and THC edibles.”

Wyoming NORML is an organization working to reform marijuana laws in Wyoming. Director Bennett Sondeno on Monday expressed criticism of the type of law enforcement operation carried out in the Casper area from several perspectives.

Sondeno said that such operations are a waste of public resources. The Casper City Council authorized the Casper PD to accept $35,000 in DEA “cannabis suppression” funds on Feb. 2. With the retail price of marijuana in the United States at around $10.76 per gram, the 520.82 grams seized in the Casper area operation would have a value of around $5,604 in places where marijuana has been legalized.

“It is such an incredible waste of resources,” Sondeno said of drug enforcement operations like the one in Casper. “They are wasting our tax dollars.”

Additionally, Sondeno said that the operations like the one in Casper in which people are targeted via traffic stops are akin to the department “trying to find easy busts,” akin also to so-called “stop-and-frisk” programs in places like New York City which have been shown disproportionately targeted racial minorities. A federal judge found the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policies unconstitutional in 2013, according to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Sondeno said that he has heard from people around Wyoming who have been arrested for possession of marijuana or other THC products who believe they were profiled by law enforcement because of things like bumper stickers on their cars or for wearing tie dye shirts.

He said that operations like the one in Casper may target people on the lower end of the economic spectrum. Someone found in possession of even relatively small amounts of marijuana could face felony level charges and Sondeno said that people arrested for “simple possession” could see their “lives turned upside down.”

“Our goal with an operation such as this is to have a highly visible, highly saturated presence in targeted areas of the community,” Casper PD said when they announced the results of the drug interdiction operation. “In doing so, officers are able to more readily conduct traffic stops on vehicles they see violate traffic law. If the traffic stop interaction between the officer and individual(s) inside the vehicle shows potential evidence of illegal substance use or presence, the officer has additional resources readily available to conduct a further investigation.”

McPheeters remarked on Saturday in regard to notions about the profile of typical drug users in the community. He said that people reviewing daily arrests would be surprised at the types of people being arrested for methamphetamine possession or other charges in which meth played a factor in the alleged crime.

He gave the examples of a “76 year old female” and a “hard-working middle aged mom” as the profile of some Casper area methamphetamine users that he thought would surprise people.

McPheeters said that there is a common notion that a meth user is skinny and has bad teeth but that “what you see in our community” is the image of someone who might live next door.

He said that while he worked in New Mexico, methamphetamine-related arrests were about 70% male while in Casper, he says the balance is closer to 50% male and 50% female.

McPheeters said that the “sheer volume of [methamphetamine] trafficking day in day out [in Casper]….takes me aback sometimes.”

He said that “people are not seeing the bigger picture” of how the DEA cannabis suppression funding also helps crack down on things like methamphetamine in the community.

“The nature of that grant is to allow me to put more officers on the street not taking calls for service but having the opportunity to impact crime in our community,” he said. “People that are telling me this is a waste of money, they really don’t understand the impact that this has.”

Sondeno said that cannabis suppression operations may provide individual law enforcement agencies with a source of funding (in this case the DEA cannabis suppression funding), but that they cost taxpayers thousands of dollars for each person arrested and found guilty of possession, whether the person spends time in prison or is put on probation.

Wyoming’s incarceration rate in 2018 was 842 per 100,000 people, above the rate across the country as a whole of 698 per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Each year, at least 8,000 different people are booked into local jails in Wyoming,” the Prison Policy Initiative says.

Wyoming’s incarceration rate has also increased significantly in recent decades. In the year 2000, there were less than 200 people incarcerated per 100,000 in Wyoming.

The Wyoming Legislative Service Office said in 2019 that the cost of housing one inmate at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in 2018 was about $128.63 per day or about $46,950 annually. The approximate cost at the Wyoming Women’s Center was about $39,862 annually.

Sondeno said that people possessing small amounts of cannabis tend to be nonviolent offenders. He said that people also struggle at times to find adequate legal representation to defend themselves against law enforcement allegations in the courts.

He gave the example of an individual who wrote to him from prison who had a public defender assigned to their case, only to have that attorney quit two weeks before the trial. With the Wyoming Office of the Public Defender seeing their budget slashed by over $8.4 million (about a 25% reduction) during the legislature’s 2021 General Session, the Office of the Public Defender may be headed back toward a crisis situation.

Wyoming Rep. Mark Baker (Sweetwater County) previously served as director of Wyoming NORML but stepped down after he was elected to office. Baker co-sponsored bills this year that would have legalized marijuana or would have initiated a study into what implementing medical marijuana in the state would entail.

Baker said on Monday that while he understands people’s frustration with cannabis suppression operations like the one in the Casper area and shares concerns about the potential for people to be harassed by law enforcement during such operations, he thinks the problem needs to be addressed through changes to the law.

Baker said he thinks law enforcement agencies are put in a difficult situation where they are “forced to enforce bad laws.” Sondeno said he agrees that individual police officers are put in a difficult situation and are not the ones people wanting reform should focus their criticism toward.

But Sondeno said that he thinks law enforcement agencies should face some criticism for implementing policies and programs that may not be the best use of taxpayer dollars and may cause harm to what he sees as harmless marijuana users.

Sondeno said he is frustrated when law enforcement agencies “gloat” about marijuana seizures or arrests they make that can result in ruining someone’s life.

“It drives me nuts,” he said.

Baker said he thinks “Wyoming is at the mercy of the federal government.” He said he is optimistic the federal government will make changes to marijuana’s legal status in the next couple of years, pointing to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s statements on April 20.

“Hopefully, the next time this unofficial holiday 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress in addressing the massive over-criminalization of marijuana in a meaningful and comprehensive way,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Baker said he thinks it is unlikely Wyoming will move forward with marijuana reform until there are changes at the federal level.

The Wyoming marijuana legalization bill passed out of committee on a 6-3 vote this spring, but House leadership did not prioritize the bill and allowed it to die before coming to the full House floor for debate.

Baker said that he thinks “something needs to be done soon” to reform marijuana policy in Wyoming. While Wyoming’s United States Congressional delegation may oppose marijuana decriminalization or legalization, Baker said people who want to see reform should make sure the delegation is made aware of what the people in Wyoming support.

“The status quo needs to change,” Baker said.

A University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC) survey released in December 2020 found that 54% of Wyoming residents support allowing adults in Wyoming to legally possess marijuana for personal use. The study also found that 85% of Wyoming residents support medical use. 75% support decriminalizing marijuana.

Sondeno said that he thinks driving while intoxicated by marijuana or any other substance should be illegal, but that simply having marijuana or THC products in someone’s vehicle poses no more danger than an unopened container of alcohol.

He said that law enforcement in Wyoming should be focused on finding ways to police against people driving impaired rather than seeking out people in possession of marijuana.

Sondeno said that he thinks change is coming at the federal level: “Even if not this year it is going to be soon.” He said that with many states having legalized recreational or medical marijuana, Wyoming needs to move forward on reform.

While he said Wyoming NORML was pleased to see the legalization bill pass out of committee, they were disappointed to see it die.

“We expect the legislature to do better to represent the people,” Sondeno said.

The Casper City Council are expected to hold further discussion during a work session regarding the police department’s use of the DEA “cannabis suppression” funding. Council member Shawn Johnson, who along with Council member Amber Pollock voted against authorizing the Casper PD to accept the funding, called for a further look at the issue during the April 13 work session.

The DEA says that their “Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program…was responsible for the eradication of 3,232,722 cultivated outdoor cannabis plants and 770,472 indoor plants for a total of 4,003,194 marijuana plants” in 2019.

“In addition, the DCE/SP accounted for 4,718 arrests and the seizure in excess of 29.0 million dollars of cultivator assets,” the DEA says. “The program also removed 3,210 weapons from cannabis cultivators.”

“In 2020, the DEA continued its nation-wide cannabis eradication efforts, providing resources to support the 127 state and local law enforcement agencies that actively participate in the program. This assistance allows the enhancement of already aggressive eradication enforcement activities throughout the nation.”

The program began in 1979.