(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.

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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 There are two main reasons — one is a legislative process issue, and the other is an outdated political position.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.

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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.

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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.

— 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 interim editor Matthew Copeland at matthew@wyofile.com.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. I must admit I was also very disappointed in Sen. Christiansen’s decision, mainly because I think marijuana should be seriously discussed as an option for severely or chronically ill people. My stepfather, a crusty Canadian who hated the slightest thought of using marijuana to ease his incredible pain as he was dying painfully from cancer, told me he wished he had changed his mind sooner because it was the only medication that gave him any bit of relief from constant agony.

  2. Leland Christensen lost my (tenative) support in the US House race over this faux pas, and I’ll be sure he hears why. I am more liberal than most in Wyoming while considering myself a populist who votes on both sides of the fence depending on the person running and not party affiliation. Until two weeks ago I was convinced L. Christensen was the least objectionable candidate to replace Congressman Lummis from the rabble running for the office. Not any more. He revealed himself , sans clothes here , with this decidedly draconian decision to keep the pro-cannabis Wyoming NORML delegation away from the cannabis task force table. Christensen unilaterally ruled by fiat. It proves beyond doubt that Governor Mead’s appointed panel was front loaded from the outset against loosening cannabis laws in Wyoming, utterly defiling its stated mission to gather the facts about cannabis legalization now occurring all over the planet and present the findings to the Governor and Legislature to aid their decision making. Christensen’s refusal to allow NORML to address the task force directly , in formal session, condemns the task force as being corrupt, and thus of no real value. It’s just a straw panel. It’s dictatorship , not democracy. Christensen cannot placate the pro-cannabis folks by giving lip service to them in saying they have every opportunity to address the task force at the end of the day during a public comment session . We all know as Drake succinctly points out the public comment slots bolted onto the end of day long session are throwaways. They’re just a facade, for show, the 2D cutout of public participation, besides being constrained.

    I offer two last thoughts. Is it possible that Leland Christensen is utterly oblivious in his world experience to any real life examples of someone he knows being aided by medical cannabis… someone treating chronic pain from MS, chemotheraphy , terminally ill hospice, or a hundred other medical conditions? It’s easy to find case histories of folks who have truly benefitted from MMJ treatment. Christensen also seems utterly oblivious to the commercial value of agricultural hemp and what a great cash crop it could be for Wyoming farmers. It’s hard to find a plant that is easier to grow or better suited for Wyoming’s wild climate and harsh growing season that pays great dividends. I have to say Christensen is in utter denial about cannabis in any form or modality. In other words, he’s close minded. That disqualifies him for higher office right there.

    Secondly , in just one week the nations of Canada and Mexico both began serious efforts to legalize cannabis across the board…recreational, medical, agricultural, commercial , regulatorily with gross reduction in criminality. Canada, and Mexico…Canada being its progressive self and Mexico by and large is very conservative, yet there they go int the 21st century. So Wyoming is now bracketed by dozens of other states that have decriminalized or legalized cannabis, and now our two neighboring countires are doing so as well.

    Will Wyoming be the last place in North America ( or the Western Hemisphere) to loosen the laws on cannabis? Does the Cowboy State insist on remaining medieval as shown by the cannabis policy and so many other regressions and obstinances around here ? We will if Leland Christensen and Matt Mead have their way and say . But they would be wrong.

    1. Update: April 28
      The final report from the 20 member Governor’s Marijuana Impact Assessment task force is now available at the panel’s website : http://gmiac.wyo.gov/

      The 250 page report was drafted in January and apparently finalized two months ago , in February. Can you say ” fast track” ? Guv Matt’s task force was HEAVILY front loaded towards not allowing cannabis reform to go forward. In my opinion, the task force was populated with anti-marijuana members ( 18 or 19 out of 20 ) and given marching orders to build to the conclusion that Wyoming does not need to follow Colorado or the rest of the known universe in decriminalizing cannabis and hemp.

      In other words, good old fashioned Wyoming steamroller politics going down a short straight road…

  3. The Feds are working hard to keep the black market thriving.All a tax does is allow the gangs to give We the People a healthy 32% discount. Only by allowing We the People to grow and consume our own MJ,will the black market ever feel the effects.Politicians live in a bubble. Poverty rules,poverty will always seek the lowest priced product.Only by complete legalization will we significantly impact the criminal world.

  4. It is quite interesting that doctors can prescribe opiate drugs which are very addictive, but not allowed to prescribe marijuana. Do our legislators know more about medicine than the doctors? I’m sure the Judiciary does.

    1. It!s not interesting. Its criminal.Someone needs to hold these people responsible, for killing people.