The Drake's Take

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.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact Guy Padgett at guy@wyofile.com or Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on August 27, 2013

{ 9 comments }

Ruby August 29, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Thank you. Wyoming should really lead the way in decriminalizing marijuana. Isn’t it a big part of our ethos to minimize government intrusion in people’s lives when they’re not hurting others or themselves? Legal marijuana would also put big-time dealers out of business.

Meth, sure, let’s have a crackdown.

Maria Kat August 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm

There is another issue hidden here: job site drug testing. Alcohol, barbiturates, morphine, opium, heroine, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone, valium, etc. cannot be found as trace metabolites in the urine after 3-4 days — their chronic use, addiction, accident-causing, life-destroying effects are well documented, real and DO show up at the workplace. While marijuana metabolites can linger in the urine 4-6 WEEKS–although the smoker likely has none of the “side-effects” of destruction at work or at home listed above. As the movement for legalization proceeds, shouldn’t workplace drug testing also change?

DeweyV August 27, 2013 at 10:22 am

Understanding the reasons why in the 21st century cannabis and hemp are still basically outlawed or draconically regulated requires a deep dive into history . Start by going back to 7000 B.C. when the first fabrics and cordage made from Hemp appear in the archaeological record. Fast forward to the Jamestown colony in 1619 , struggling to survive the New World the colony leaders passed laws requiring the farmers to grow Hemp. In 1776 we find George Washington growing the stuff on his plantation , and Thomas Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence on Hemp paper. The bank currency of the time was printed on hemp. It appeared that upstatrt America was well on its way to incorporating cannabis into its dreams of a better life. So what went wrong ?
The principal reason hemp and marijuana products are illegal or conscripted by draconian law in the USA today can be summarized in two notions: Racism against both Mexicans and African Americans, and some good old fashioned government corruption aided by none other than William Randolph Hearst in the private sector and the first and worst of the drug czars Harry J. Anslinger who was the ironfisted advisor to five Presidents from Hoover to JFK. Anslinger singlehandedly did more to set back marijuana reform than Pontius Pilate did to set back Christianity.

It’s a sordid history . Anslinger created the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 since I suppose he had seen how well the Prohibition had worked on alcohol. He had help from hearst who absolutely totally hated Mexicans. There was a vast conspiracy of rhetoric against black Americans, especially jazz musicians, who were tarred as drug dealers turning decent folks into raving demons. And who can forget that all-time classic propaganda film burned into our memories , 1934′s ” Reefer Madness”. ( Try watching THAT to the audio of Pink Floyd’s ‘ Dark Side of the Moon’ ). Oliver Stone ( no pun intended) needs to do a major biopic film based on the treachery of Harry Anslinger to fracture our ossified memories on the whole marijuana debacle. Read about this guy and you’ll see why.

Thanks to all this, Cannabis is mostly considered a Schedule 1 narcotic right alongside heroin and morphine, which must by the same reasoning mean single malt Scotch should be in liege with Ebola or plutonium . By the time President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs , the American public was thoroughly deeply transformationally INDOCTRINATED against cannabis in any form as being pure evil incarnate.

Nowhere is that more demonstrable than right here in Wyoming. This state’s justice system and law enforcement still thinks it is Anslinger’s 1938 or Nixon-Reagan-Bush 1 -Bill Bennett’s DEA glory days. Wyoming enforcers have a reverse psychopathy towards pot smokers and purveyors of connoisseur cannabis products, prosecuted with prejudice. They are likely to have a glass of whiskey on the rocks in one hand and a Marlboro in the other after a tough day of pot smashing , and maybe a bottle of overprescribed Oxycontin on the dresser ( just like Rush Limbaugh, till he got caught) . Go figure. While 82 percent of Americans believe the War on Drugs was lost a long time ago, we in Wyoming still live in the Stone Age ( pun intended ). The Equality State with its strong Libertarian attitude will oxymoronically be the last state to decriminalize or —gasp! –legalize cannabis. It is a hypocrisy of Biblical proportions. It is time to Unlearn the legacy of Harry J. Anslinger the arch-bigot.

My point ? Read the long history of cannabis policy and cultural cannabis practices , for a grand perspective, then take a good look around. See any potheads crashing their cars or beating their wives or calling in sick at the office with the Budweiser Flu ? Look more and you will see some folks on chemo, on crutches, in a walker or wheelchair, or just stumbling along who might very well benefit from a couple tokes of Bubba Kush or a brownie instead of a $ 300 office call to a doctor and some pricey Big Pharma medicinals and snake oil. Wanna see them smile again ?

We need to lean hard on our lawmakers in Wyoming. It’s time.

Paul Rock August 27, 2013 at 9:59 am

Conservatives have to be against this because if pot is legalized then the hippies win. What’s next? From legalized pot it’s a slippery slope to embracing the other hippy virtues of peace and love. We just cannot have that. As always, the establishment and its minions are on the side of perpetual hate and war.

Bill Fargo August 27, 2013 at 9:35 am

If those who fail to understand why marijuana is regulated in the way that it is would simply spend some time reading about Harry Anslinger and the end of prohibition, much of the morass would become clear.

DeweyV August 27, 2013 at 9:13 am

Wyoming must be good Dragon habitat. We have a LOT of draconian laws…

Dave Nelsen August 27, 2013 at 8:12 am

Many controversies perhaps and likely can be examined further by FOLLOW THE MONEY. Hemp could be an income for the small farmer (without Monsanto manipulation). Pot could be home grown without taxation. The alcohol industry and lobbyists may face competition. The international drug cartels may need to find other avenues of livelyhood. The DEA could consume MUCH LESS citizen taxed dollars. Prisons could empty. The STATIS QUO would be interupted. I contend the pharmaceutical indutry has a stranglehold on choice because of the insane profitability in doing so. How many people are not on drugs?????

Victoria Gutshall August 27, 2013 at 8:10 am

I look at the assortment of drugs my husband takes for his medical conditions, and it sickens me to know that most of them could be replaced by medical marijuana and he wouldn’t suffer the side effects that he currently suffers. As for myself, I am constantly taking drugs for my severe arthritis that could easily be replaced by marijuana, to better effect and without the potential of damage to my liver. Research has proved over and over again that Marijuana, a simple, natural herb, is darn near a miracle drug for so many conditions that it seems criminal to me to deny it’s use.
It heartened me to see the demonstration across from the hospital on Saturday, but I noticed that is was disproportionately younger people demonstrating, many not even of voting age yet. I applaud these kids for taking a stand, but we older folks need to get active in this as well, since we are the ones who would most benefit from the legalization of medical marijuana. I know quite a few middle aged and senior citizens who slip down to Colorado to buy medical marijuana; if these people would just step up and make their voices heard maybe in time they would have to go no farther than downtown Casper.
Like many, I hope that Dr. Gupta changing his position will open eyes around this country and help end this absurd and immoral prohibition against a completely natural, beneficial herb.

Brodie Farquhar August 27, 2013 at 5:34 am

Having moved from Wyoming to Colorado, I didn’t find attitudes terribly different. The northwestern communities of Craig, Hayden and Steamboat have all balked at allowing retail sales of marijuana. And it seems much of the opposition is founded on misinformation spread over the years by DEA and DARE. Interestingly, a young man approached the Hayden town council and asked them to revoke the current ban on medical marijuana operations. Council members appear open to at least talking and learning more about it. Several cited the CNN “Weed” documentary as instrumental in changing perceptions and the switch of Dr. Gupta from opponent to supporter of medical marijuana. There’s also this: the rural West has a cultural bias in favor of hard-drinking and holds pot-smoking “hippies” in contempt. You can certainly see it played out in the movie “Platoon.” And yet most cops will readily admit that while alcohol can make any situation worse and prone to violence, pot does not lend itself to aggression, anger, etc., certainly not to the degree of booze/beer.

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