Wyoming legislators push to legalize marijuana to maintain control in face of 'inevitable' changes - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Wyoming legislators push to legalize marijuana to maintain control in face of ‘inevitable’ changes

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CASPER, Wyo. — Some Wyoming legislators are pushing for the state to legalize marijuana to get out ahead of what they see as inevitable changes in the legal status of cannabis either through federal re-scheduling of the drug or a ballot initiative from Wyoming residents to legalize mairjuana.

During the House Judiciary Committee’s March 12 meeting, Chair Jared Olsen (Laramie County) pointed to a University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC) survey released in December which found increasing support for legalization of marijuana.

Olsen is a sponsor of House Bill 209 which would legalize and regulate both recreational and medical marijuana in Wyoming.

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“Is Wyoming ready to legalize marijuana?” Olsen said, later adding: “From my perspective it is only a matter of time before one of a few things happen.”

The UW survey 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.

Olsen also pointed recent Gallup polling released in Nov. 2020 which found that 68% of Americans overall support legalization of marijuana.

With support for legalization increasing, Olsen said that “many believe that legalization by ballot initiative in Wyoming [will be] viable as early as 2022.”

He said he also believes that at the federal level, marijuana is “very likely” to be legalized in the next four years, “possibly in the next year.”

Olsen said that he has never used marijuana and does not see himself as a marijuana advocate: “I don’t come from the camp that says I want to see our laws relaxed in this area.”

Rather, Olsen argued that the legislature should act to legalize, and more importantly regulate, marijuana so that the state wouldn’t have to scramble reactively to legalization mandated by voters or the federal government.

He added that Wyoming is one of only six states which make marijuana possession and use “fully illegal.”

Olsen said that House Bill 209 is modeled after Virginia marijuana law rather than Colorado law. The proposed legislation would allow for possession and cultivation of marijuana for individuals 21 and over as follows:

  • Possession of retail marijuana
    1. legal age of 21 years old
      • up to three ounces of retail marijuana that is flower
      • up to 16 ounces of retail marijuana or marijuana product that is solid product
      • up to 72 ounces ounces of retail marijuana that is liquid product
      • up to 30 grams of retail marijuana that is in the form of a marijuana concentrate
  • Home cultivation
    • legal for people 21 and older to grow for personal consumption (not for sale)
      • up to 12 mature flowering female marijuana plants
      • people growing marijuana could also have up to 16 ounces of retail marijuana within their home “provided that any amount more than two and one‑half (2 1/2) ounces shall be stored in a container or area with locks or other security devices that restrict access to the container or area”

House Bill 209 is not the only legislation considered this year that deals with marijuana. The House Judiciary Committee also discussed House Bill 82 during their March 12 meeting which would call for a study looking at what implementing medical marijuana in the state would entail.

Rep. Bill Henderson (Laramie County) is a sponsor of House Bill 82 and also pointed the the UW survey showing increasing support for medical marijuana. He said that with residents increasingly supportive of medical, it would make sense to study the topic and get some recommendations about how to possibly regulate medical marijuana in the state.

“To me it is not a question of if we’re going to legalize marijuana, it is a question of when,” Henderson said, adding that he thinks the study would be a good first step.

Rep. Pat Sweeney (Natrona) told the House Judiciary Committee he supports both bills and that he has long held the view that medical marijuana in particular should be legalized.

He said that family members dealing with medical issues have been able to access synthetic medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which mimic natural THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), but that his family members have told him the synthetic products are “not nearly effective as the oils and other treatment methods available in Colorado.”

While Sweeney supports both pieces of legislation, he cautioned that he doesn’t believe legalizing marijuana “will be this huge economic driver.” House Bill 209 would generate an estimated $49.5 million in new revenues for the state, but Sweeney said that with costs to regulate marijuana, he expects the net impact for the state would be much less significant.

Sweeney also argued that the legislature should act on their own and “not be forced by referendum….as Utah has to try to put something in place very quickly.”

Rep. Mark Baker (Sweetwater) told the House Judiciary Committee that while he believe concern about abuse of marijuana is relevant, such concerns haven’t led to the state taking away people’s rights to use other substances like alcohol and tobacco.

Baker said he see this as similar to the right to bear arms where people who own and use firearms responsibly don’t have that right stripped away because of people who abuse that right.

Baker said that he has a medical condition known as ulcerative colitis (though he was initially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease) and has had his colon removed and small intestine shortened.

He said that while the procedures he has undergone have proven helpful, before these were done he had to undergo nine blood transfusions. There were times where he “didn’t eat food for months on end.”

Baker said he has been living with the condition for years and “part of the time, I’ve utilized access to cannabis…life is easier with than without.”

Rep. Landon Brown (Laramie County) said he thinks it is time for legalization of marijuana. He noted that some Wyoming residents travel to Colorado to purchase marijuana products and are “dumping money down into that community.”

Brown said he also knows someone living with multiple sclerosis who relies on marijuana to deal with his condition.

On the question of whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, Brown said he thinks about the prohibition of alcohol and that many of the arguments against legalizing marijuana mirror arguments used against ending prohibition.

“If you want to smoke, go smoke,” Brown said. “It is not going to bother me. If you want to do it go do it in your own backyard. Don’t bother me with it because I’m not going to do it.”

Brown said he supports legalizing recreational for another reason. He said legalizing medical marijuana alone would put doctors in a difficult position. Due to marijuana being a Schedule 1 drug federally, doctors are unable to “prescribe” marijuana, but are limited to “recommending” it to patients they think may benefit.

Brown said he thinks it is “unfair practice to put physicians in middle of this.”

Rep. Bill Fortner (Campbell), on the other hand, said he could support medical marijuana but not recreational. He said that if medical is legalized, he thinks it is important strong regulations are in place to prevent abuse of the system.

“There are three different types of people in Wyoming when you talk marijuana,” Fortner said. “There’s the guy that’s confused, the guy that’s against it and the guy that needs it. Those are the three. How do we make sure that everybody gets to be happy?”

Fortner said the “only way” he would ever endorse legalizing medical marijuana was if regulations ensured that doctors don’t prescribe marijuana products unless a patient really needs it.

He said he didn’t want to be held accountable for someone becomeing addicted to marijuana and having it “ruin their lives.”

“Fo you feel the same way about our regulation of alcohol and tobacco?,” House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Mike Yin (Teton) asked.

Fortner said he thinks alcohol should have been more regulated historically: “Alcohol in my opinion is the most deadly, dangerous, harmful drug in the world.”

He said that he thinks marijuana does have legitimate medical benefits: “The people that actually need this, they need it.”

The House Judiciary Committee also heard testimony from various state agencies and members of the public in regard to the proposed marijuana legislation.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Art Washut (Natrona) asked Wyoming Department of Agriculture representatives if they would have the ability and capacity to test edible marijuana products that would be legalized under the proposed legislature.

Deputy Director Stacia Berry said the department would have the ability to provide that testing “to some degree” as the department is already providing THC testing for the state’s hemp program. In addition to testing for THC levels, Berry said the department can test for pesticides and heavy metals.

She said that additional equipment and possibly additional space may be needed to accommodate volumes the department would be tasked with testing if Wyoming legalizes marijuana as proposed under House Bill 209.

However, Berry said that the scale of how much the department would need to expand would remain unknown until legalization were to occur since it is unknown how much marijuana product would begin to exist in the state’s system.

Wyoming Department of Revenue Director Dan Noble told the House Judiciary Committee that in terms of dealing with the tax structure that would be created by legalization, the department likely wouldn’t need additional personnel.

He said that the state has about 400 full retail liquor license holders and guessed that Wyoming could eventually have something close to that number for marijuana, except that the legislation would not allow for marijuana bars (it would allow at-home consumption only).

Noble told the committee that he and other department staff have visited Colorado and were told that the most difficult aspects of regulation there were:

  • a “gray market” created because medical marijuana is less expensive than retail
  • problems with people selling marijuana they grow at home to get around paying tax mark-ups on retail products

State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist told the committee the Wyoming Department of Health’s main role should marijuana be legalized would be in the are of substance abuse prevention.

Yin asked her whether she knows of studies comparing the addictive qualities of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. Harrist said she didn’t immediately have comparative information available but said “about 1 in every 10 marijuana users will become addicted” and “1 in 6 who start before age 18 will develop a marijuana use disorder.”

Wyoming State Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Matt Martineau described the process by which new drugs can get approved for medical use in response to a question from Washut.

He said that a new drug “would have to go through something called a New Drug Application.” The drug would be evaluated by the U.S. FDA and would have to be demonstrated as effective and safe through clinical trials.

Martineau said that as a drug goes through such trials, it can be identified as “habit forming” where is may then face possible scheduling, which would involve the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The process for a new drug to get approved can take many years, Martineau said. Were marijuana to be legalized federally, he said it “would likely have to follow a slightly different path” before it could be approved for medical use since it is already listed as a Schedule 1 substance.

Martineau said Schedule 1 refers to substances which are classified as “highly habit forming that [do] not have known or acknowledged medical value at the federal level.”

Wyoming Medical Society Executive Director Shelia Bush said their organization has no position as to whether recereational marijuana should be legalized. But she said they are opposed to medical marijuana so long as it remains a Schedule 1 substance federally.

Former state legislator and former Gillette Mayor Frank Latta testified to the House Judiciary Committee as a citizen. Latta says he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978.

As his disease has progressed over the years, Latta said there are time when “some mental clouding goes on in my mind. Some ability to use my limbs becomes hard. Hard to walk up the stairs. Hard to go to the bathroom. Hard to eat food.”

Latta said that if it weren’t for his condition, he would still have ran for political office: “I cannot because of my MS.” He said that he has visited doctors in multiple states who have recommended he try marijuana products to deal with some of his symptoms.

Since marijuana is illegal in Wyoming, he instead has had to rely on prescription opioid drugs like clonazepam.

“You want to look that up? It is an opioid,” Latta said. “Every doctor has told me, ‘You would be much better served using marijuana to take care of your spacticity problem [in your legs] than an opioid,'” Latta said. “‘You’re going to become addicted to the opioid.'”

Latta said that when he decided to get off clonazepam, he experienced withdrawal problems which he may not have experienced if he had been able to use marijuana instead.

“I guess you doctors don’t know what you’re talking about because my state says I can’t be on that,” Latta said of why he supports legalization of marijuana.

“I’m a pretty darn conservative Republican,” he added. “I do not believe that the government should be regulating in any way on a plant. The medical part of it would be my biggest interest.”

Susan Gore, on the other hand, said that marijuana is “particularly promoted” to young women and children and that it can have negative impacts on brain health of children.

She said that synthetic drugs approved by the FDA exist for people who need something similar to what marijuana may provide and asked that the legislature “let things be and let people come here in peace.”

“Whenever a state legalizes, use goes up and there are more damaged brains of kids,” Gore said.

Others testifying to the committee argued that legalization increases the black market trade of marijuana and has other negative effects on society and the environment.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee told the House Judiciary Committee that he is a resident of Teton County and recommended that the state avoid approaching legalization “halfway.”

He said that legalization would create a “lucrative revenue stream.” Chafee urged the legislature to act to keep as much control as possible over how legalization occurs in Wyoming.

“We all want to see these revenues go to necessary government services and to keep taxes down,” he said.

House Judiciary Committee member Barry Crago (Johnson, Sheridan) said he is against legalizing marijuana, but that he would vote to advance House Bill 209 out of committee to allow debate among the full House.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams said she would vote no “for several thousand reasons.”

Washut said that the issue is “complex” and has “a lot of moving parts.”

“I think there are very sincere people who are using this product for all the right reasons to do the best for themselves in a complex medical world,” he said.

However, with marijuana still illegal federally, Washut said he thinks legalizing in Wyoming would create too many challenges.

“I know people use this as a medicine but it is not a medicine under federal law,” he said.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ember Oakley (Fremont) said that while she isn’t “sure we’re quite ready for it,” should would vote to advance the bill to the full House. She said she would like to see a provision allowing for local prohibition in a county or city should the legislation continue to advance.

Yin said that he thinks the pros of legalization would “far outweigh” the cons. He said one benefit would be getting rid of low-level marijuana criminal offenses.

“Why should I care about what they do in their own home?” he asked.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Karlee Provenza (Albany County) said that both her mother and her uncle struggled with “the same stage 4 level of cancer.”

She said that her mom used marijuana to help her through her treatment but that her uncle did not. Provenza said that her mom is “now celebrating five years cancer free.”

“My uncle has died,” she said. “He couldn’t stay well….so many people are making these decisions.”

Provenza said that she doesn’t think there should be any bar “to people getting help they need.”

The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-3 to advance House Bill 209 (the legalization bill):

  • Ayes: CRAGO, OAKLEY, PROVENZA, YIN, ZWONITZER, OLSEN
  • Nays: LAURSEN, RODRIGUEZ-WILLIAMS, WASHUT

No motion was made on House Bill 82 (the medical marijuana study bill).