Wyoming’s draconian marijuana laws need to change
— August 27, 2013
Christine Christian of Jackson may seem like an odd choice to head Wyoming’s movement to legalize marijuana. At 64, she’s admittedly never been much of a joiner, and on the website for the state’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), she poses the question herself: “Why am I spending my time and resources in my retirement years to fight a battle that has been projected to be unwinnable?”
Spend time talking to her, though, and you will learn that she’s totally committed to the cause, and has been since the mid-1990s, when she was a psychology student at the University of Wyoming. “I’ll talk your ear off,” says the executive director of Wyoming NORML. “And I’ll have the facts to back up what I say.”
With Wyoming between two states that have much more liberal views of pot — Montana, which allows medical marijuana, and Colorado, which has legalized small amounts for recreational use — Christian says the state must change its draconian marijuana laws.
“I think the state’s reaction to crack down [on marijuana users] instead of loosening up is wrong,” she declares. “The state of Wyoming has been a gestapo state, and it’s getting worse.”
Possession of any small amount of marijuana, up to 3 ounces, is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Sentences for first-time offenders typically come with mandatory drug tests and counseling.
“It’s ridiculous and it’s expensive — it just puts money in the state’s pocket, and we don’t get any of it back,” Christian said.
Simple possession of more than 3 ounces can result in up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. For intent to deliver, a felony, the state tacks on up to an additional 5 years. “All that time behind bars does is make people better criminals when they get out,” she says.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently reported that 2,254 people were arrested on marijuana charges in 2010 in Wyoming. Ninety-three percent were only for possession and not for the manufacture or sale of the drug.
There is evidence that nationally, opinions about harsh drug laws are changing. A recent Rasmussen poll found that only 4 percent of adults believe we’re winning the war on drugs. And in a much-publicized change of heart, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN reversed a long-held position and now says he supports medical marijuana.
But does that translate into any willingness to change the pot laws in red-state Wyoming, a conservative stronghold? Christian says many people she meets support legalization, but are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they speak publicly. She also takes issue with the view that the state is conservative.
“The people I know in this state are radical. … I am not a conservative and I don’t know one,” she declares.
Christian says she was driving in Jackson last week and a man stopped his vehicle, ran up to her window and asked about the pro-pot bumper sticker on her car. She told him it was from Wyoming NORML and sold him one for $10. The director said she’s had a similar response to the “legalize it in 2016″ wristbands she wears everywhere.
The date refers to the 2016 election, when Christian and other NORML members hope to put an initiative on the ballot that would legalize marijuana possession up to 3 ounces. “No jail time, no fine, no nothing, unless there’s a minor involved,” she explains.
Christian was a UW law student who had to drop out when she was seriously injured in a car accident in Casper in the early ’90s. She returned to school to study psychology and worked as an intern for a drug and alcohol treatment center, but quickly became disenchanted.
“I asked one of the older counselors why we’re telling people things [about marijuana] being a harmful and addictive drug that my textbook said weren’t true,” Christian recalls. “She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Because that’s what we do — we charge them.’ They lie to people and take their money? There was no way I was going to be a drug and alcohol counselor.”
She wants Wyoming to have medical marijuana available. She had back and shoulder surgeries after her auto accident, and was in constant pain. “All of the pain medication they gave me was addictive, and had the opposite reaction on me,” Christian explains. “I do a lot of pain management with exercise, meditation and mind control. You can get to a place where you’re stable that way, but it’s a lot quicker if you can smoke a joint.”
Christian says she is extremely disappointed by President Barack Obama, a former pot smoker whom she voted for but considers a double-crosser who lied about his support for legalization so he could get elected in 2008. She adds that Gov. Matt Mead seems intractable in his anti-marijuana position.
She’s not asking the Wyoming Legislature to pass any changes to pot laws. “If [anyone] sponsors a bill, they’ll sit on it and leave it to die in committee,” she predicts. “We need a Wyoming citizens’ initiative.”
However, the hurdles to place such a measure on the ballot are immense. Wyoming NORML has a committee that’s completed its third draft of a proposed initiative, and is now fine-tuning it. But the group will need 15 percent of the number of people who voted in the previous statewide election to sign a petition. If NORML was shooting for the 2014 election, as it initially hoped to, it would have meant acquiring 37,606 signatures of registered voters.
Once an initiative is certified by the state for circulation, a group has 18 months to collect the required signatures. Christian notes that even if NORML is successful in getting on the ballot, there’s another major obstacle: anyone who leaves the question blank is counted as a “no” vote.
“What needs to be changed is the initiative process in Wyoming,” she says. “The state doesn’t want the people to be able to change the law.”
Is she still optimistic? “I don’t know if we can get it passed or not, but we’ve got to try,” Christian says. ”We’ve been approached by someone who wanted to be paid [to get signatures], but we immediately said no, we’re not doing that. I think our volunteers can get it on the ballot, and we’ll make history.”
But she admits that some people vehemently object to her effort. “I’ve been told, ‘If you want to do all this California stuff and legalize pot, you need to move to California,’” she relates.
Wyoming is her home state, and she has no intention of moving. “I’m very liberal and outspoken,” she says, and then laughs. “It’s possible to raise somebody like me here, too.”
She says a friend who just learned that she was the head of the new state NORML chapter observed, “You always seem like such a quiet little person. Why are you doing this?”
“I’m doing it because people are dying in the drug wars,” she says. “We have imposed our ideas for far too long on the rest of the world. And I’m sick of Wyoming imposing their ideas on me.”
I think Christian greatly underestimates the number of conservatives in Wyoming and their political power. But I agree with her that attitudes about marijuana are changing rapidly, as people realize the damage and expense caused by treating non-violent people like criminals. Alcohol is an addictive, deadly drug, yet it’s legal in our society. And I think it’s a crime to deny marijuana to cancer, glaucoma and other patients whose pain could be greatly alleviated. Create a huge cash crop in the state, regulate it and tax the sale, and we won’t ever need to worry about budget deficits.
The fact that having a pinch of pot can land a person in jail for up to a year in Wyoming is absolutely crazy. It’s time to change the law, and if the only way to do it statewide is to get the issue on the ballot, let’s do it.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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