(Opinion)— Dudes, you’re getting it all wrong. Especially you, Leland Christensen.
Wyoming Sen. Christensen (R-Alta) is one of the dozen or so members of his party running for Congress. He’s also co-chairman of the Joint Interim Judiciary Committee. Even though it’s called a joint committee it has little to do with marijuana.
But it does have one connection to pot: Most measures proposed for regulating marijuana usage in the state are assigned to the Judiciary panel. Members talk about the issue, occasionally letting a bill here or there proceed to be voted down by the full chamber. But most cannabis bills are dead before the Legislature’s staff even prints them, especially if its sponsor’s goal is to legalize or decriminalize any use of marijuana in the Equality State.
Why do I believe Christensen is in error? There are two main reasons — one is a legislative process issue, and the other is an outdated political position.
Christensen’s committee will hold a hearing on medical marijuana in Rock Springs on Wednesday, April 27, but he decided to remove from the agenda the organization that is circulating a statewide petition to put the issue on the 2018 ballot.
Two law enforcement groups — the Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police — both of which oppose medical marijuana are still on the agenda to testify. But the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has been denied that opportunity.
Christensen claimed in an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune that NORML isn’t being shut out of the meeting, and its members will be allowed to speak at the public comment portion of the hearing. But people who regularly attend legislative meetings like this one know there’s a significant difference. Groups specifically invited to testify do so with a recognition of their authority and knowledge of the subject. Legislators often defer to their expertise and give them as much time as they want to make their case.
Individuals and groups who are allowed to contribute during the public comment period at the end of the committee hearing are often treated with less respect and given short shrift by the committee. Speakers may be told to “keep it brief” and restricted by a time limit, and if there’s already been a lengthy discussion nobody is very anxious to see the day prolonged.
The purpose of the Rock Springs meeting is to review Wyoming’s existing marijuana laws and any proposed ballot initiatives. NORML circulated a petition to try to get medical marijuana and industrial hemp approved by voters in the 2016 general election. The effort fell short, but the group is trying again to get the Peggy A. Kelley Wyoming Cannabis Act on the ballot in two years.
Kelley, a retired railroad engineer who lived in Guernsey, died of cancer in January 2015. She credited the use of medical cannabis with helping her live years longer than her doctors told her to expect. Lawmakers who will decide on the legality of medical marijuana should encourage NORML to tell them her story.
How can a legislative committee decide that a group proposing the state’s only ballot initiative about marijuana isn’t worthy of being on an agenda nominally built to examine ballot initiatives, while two opponents who want to kill the proposal will be front and center at the hearing?
Including NORML in the Judiciary Committee’s meeting should be a no-brainer; it’s a major player in the issue at hand, is arguably the most informed group available and represents a view legislators won’t hear from the two Wyoming law enforcement groups.
The political aspect of the marijuana issue is even more complex than the procedural. But if anti-pot legislators were willing to examine the issue from an ideological standpoint, they may realize why like-minded conservatives in other states believe legalization of medical and recreational marijuana could actually benefit the state and its residents.
Let’s look at the fiscal side first because that’s what drives most legislative decisions, especially when energy prices have cratered and the state is looking for other revenue.
There are several ways legal, state-regulated marijuana sales can be used to generate much-needed state revenues: excise taxes, sales taxes, license fees, and business and occupation taxes. In the state of Washington, 80 percent of pot excise tax revenues are invested in health care, substance abuse and vital public health programs. If that money wasn’t available from marijuana taxes, the state would have to come up with funding by some method or forego services.
The same benefit applies in Los Angeles, where officials are now considering funding a program to build more houses for the homeless by taxing the sale and cultivation of medical marijuana at 15 percent. If the state of California decides to legalize recreational pot, that product could also be taxed by local governments for other necessary, creative uses.
Let’s not overlook the political side of the legalization/decriminalization controversy. Many conservatives — including a small but growing number of members of Congress — have finally recognized that their attitudes about marijuana don’t match their ceaseless cries for small government and limited state interference in American lives. For the most part, Wyoming Republican lawmakers express these same ideals but aren’t willing to implement them when they get the opportunity to “walk the walk.”
Polls have indicated increasing public support for medical marijuana, which has the backing of nearly three-quarters of state voters, according to a University of Wyoming study. For the first time, national support for legalizing recreational marijuana is now a majority at 53 percent.
The Wyoming Legislature has repeatedly shown that it’s not interested in representing the views of residents on popular issues such as Medicaid expansion, but if enough pressure is put on lawmakers through the ballot box, perhaps some of them will finally get the message about marijuana.
Not locking up people for the non-violent crime of possessing small amounts of marijuana — plus not giving them outrageously long mandatory minimum sentences — will reduce law enforcement and court costs and should result in major savings to the state’s Corrections Department. Not having a felony on their records will also give young people a second chance to obtain jobs and housing — to become taxpayers and contributing members of society instead of dependents of social services.
So far most members of the Judiciary panel have turned a deaf ear to the many medical benefits of marijuana, which can be used to treat glaucoma, reduce the pain of cancer and multiple sclerosis, slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and treat a host of other medical conditions.
Thoroughly documented positive medical evidence hasn’t changed the views of some legislators who apparently have been told since junior high health class that pot is a gateway to harder drugs. The ready acceptance of alcohol — a much more harmful but legal drug — by these same officials is total hypocrisy.
Earlier this year state lawmakers failed to agree on a bill aimed at punishing people for the possession of small amounts of edible marijuana. Focusing on punishment while other states want to relieve their constituents’ pain shows a shameless inability to even look at how other states’ attitudes about cannabis have evolved in recent years.
Until legislators like Christensen realize that people who support medical marijuana also deserve a seat at the table, Wyoming will continue to force its ill residents to needlessly suffer while the state also rejects a credible way to increase its revenues.
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