A legal marijuana growing operation in Colorado. The 2014 Colorado constitutional amendment to legalize recreational use of marijuana has increased access to the drug for Wyoming residents, some of whom use cannabis for medical reasons. (Brett Levin/Flickr Creative Commons)

Members of the House Judiciary Committee want the entire Wyoming House to debate a bill that would legalize marijuana for adult personal use and establish a regulated retail market, voting 6-3 Friday to send the measure to the floor.

The committee advanced House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana after about four hours of testimony from a spectrum of witnesses ranging from the state’s leading libertarian to the former governor of Rhode Island. Depending on the speaker, marijuana is either an addictive substance packaged for and marketed to children whose brains it re-wires, or an adult product less harmful than a beer consumed in leisure times to relax.

Witnesses ran the gamut from an anti-pot activist to a doctor, a former vice presidential candidate, a convicted drug felon, a medical patient who uses and another patient who wishes he could. The bill would regulate marijuana establishments — from retail shops to greenhouses to transport and testing businesses — and would allow personal cultivation and private use.

Reps. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) and Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) cast swing votes to advance the bill to the House floor. They didn’t commit to voting for its ultimate passage.

Oakley, a Fremont County prosecutor, said she was torn over the issue and warned of a variety of costs that legal use could bring. Marijuana can’t be prescribed by a doctor, she said underscoring federal prohibitions, so “it’s hard to think we would legalize it.”

Crago, an attorney and rancher, is “against legalizing marijuana,” he said. But after being bombarded by emails both for and against, he said it is time for a whole-House debate.

Opponents raised worries. Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) voted against the bill “for the sake of preserving the Wyoming family unit,” and in support of law enforcement. Committee member Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) opposed the bill saying if he were to challenge federal law he would start with the Endangered Species Act, not marijuana prohibitions.

Opponent Dan Laursen (R-Powell) raised questions about hospitalization rates and other issues arising in Colorado from marijuana legalization there.

Co-sponsors Michael Yin (D-Jackson), Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) and Dan Zwonitzer (R- Cheyenne) backed lead sponsor Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), chairman of the committee. “I’ll be voting for liberty today,” Olsen said as the measure succeeded.

A year in the making

Olsen spent a year crafting the bill, modeling it after Virginia statute, he said. He showed a map of nearby states where marijuana is used under regulations and raised the possibility of federal action to essentially decriminalize the drug “possibly within a year.”

“Then who decides what the regulation of marijuana is like in Wyoming?” Olsen asked.

Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, asks a question during the House Judiciary Committee meeting March 11, 2021. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Penalties for driving under the influence, supplying minors and other infractions would not change. “I don’t come from the camp that says I want to see the laws relaxed,” he said.

The bill would tax retail sales at 30%, raising an estimated $50 million annually. Licensing will be strict, prohibiting “anyone who is not a resident of Wyoming … not of moral character,” he said.

“We’re going to fingerprint ’em,” Olsen said of marijuana license holders.

Committee members quizzed state bureaucrats before Olsen, chairman of the committee, turned to the public. Support for his bill came from several quarters.

The wholesale regulation proposed in Olsen’s 122-page bill is superior to the medical-only “halfway approach” said Lincoln Chafee, former Rhode Island governor who now lives in Jackson Hole. He inherited Rhode Island’s medical-only statutes in 2011 upon becoming governor, he said over a Zoom link.

“I recommend keeping as much control as possible over every aspect of this endeavor,” Chafee said.

The 2012 Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate, Jim Gray, also backed Olsen, saying “as soon as you prohibit a substance, you give up all your control to the bad guys.” Gray, a retired California judge, continued his outspoken criticism of American drug laws.

“You are not condoning the use of marijuana,” Gray said of Olsen’s bill. “You are taking a lot of money away from Mexican drug cartels, motorcycle gangs, thugs. No state in the U.S. has legalized marijuana,” he said. “You’re talking about regulating.”

Rep. Mark Baker (R-Green River) told the committee marijuana helped him recover from a serious intestinal condition and major surgery. 

Former representative Frank Lata, meanwhile, told of how Wyoming’s law’s pushed him to addictive opioids to treat his multiple sclerosis.

“Every doctor has told me, ‘you would be much better served using marijuana,’” he said. Lata dismissed worries about medical testing and efficacy. “Every medicine I have been on has been experimental,” he said.

Utah marijuana advocate Justin Arriola told the committee a person would have to consume about 6 tons of marijuana in one session to die from it. “It’s almost impossible to use enough cannabis product to cause a fatality,” he said.

He also countered anti-regulation witnesses who used “fear tactics,” he said, in rolling out a litany of evils caused by marijuana in other states.

Opposition remains stiff

Luke Niforatos, an anti-marijuana activist associated with the Colorado Smart Approaches to Marijuana group, claimed youth use is increasing in states that allow marijuana, an increase he tied to a more permissive attitude toward the drug. “Concerning data” shows increasing hospitalizations and other problems, he said. 

“The cartels and gangs and drug dealers have made more money than ever,” he said. “They use a lot of chemicals that have killed a number of endangered species of spotted owls.”

State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist responded to a question, saying “there is certainly information out there that about one in every 10 marijuana users will become addicted.” Arriola said studies show 6% to 9% of users have a propensity for addiction.

Susan Gore, founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, opposed the bill saying, among other things, that marijuana rewires children’s brains. The bill would allow adult use only.

“I had the experience of inhaling and experiencing the dopamine rush,” she said of an encounter with the drug. “I didn’t get addicted to my experience.

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“My main point [is] to plead for the brains of the children of Wyoming,” she said. “I know that marijuana is particularly promoted to women and to children.” In states where it’s regulated, “there’s an increase in damaged babies,” Gore claimed.

The bill was not scheduled for floor consideration by early Monday. Thursday is the last day for bills to be considered in their chamber of origin. The committee didn’t act on a second marijuana bill – House Bill 82 — Implementation requirements for medical marijuana, so that measure died.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. If we are so worried about “saving the family unit, children’s brains, and increased hospitalizations” we should probably outlaw alcohol and tobacco too considering those might might be leading the charge. Also the concern that somehow connecting the the supposed success of drug cartels to the legalization of marijuana in various States, which has in turn led to the use of “a lot of chemicals that have killed a number of endangered species of spotted owls” is a really cute argument being used in one of the largest states responsible for fossil fuel production/consumption, in the country that ranks first in fossil fuel usage.
    If we really want to consider a realistic option for saving or helping the kids of Wyoming we should legalize marijuana, tax it, and shovel that money into education funding, just like this bill prescribes.

  2. One of my former students just returned to Co. from Wyoming, where , she said, fentanyl and meth were the drugs of choice. You can’t legislate morality or eliminate bad choices with moral attitudes and laws. And the Mexican drug lords have found other fish to fry. Colorado will lose income and desperate Wyoming will gain some , so go ahead and legalize ,but count me out . I didn’t like Pot in the sixties, and I doubt I’d enjoy it more than a stiff martini now..

  3. Just a thought…..I’m for legalization of marijuana. We would not be the first state to do so which would enable us to learn from their mistakes. If you think for one minute that there are no Wyoming citizens who have skipped over to other states to get their fix you are so wrong; and there goes $$s flying out the window that could be put to use at home. Instead of considering a state income tax why not legalize marijuana and tax it in order to provide $$s for the state. Legalizing and taxing marijuana would only affect the sellers/users whereas a State income tax would impact everyone.

  4. The War on naturally occurring plants by supposedly a “free market” society is just one more notch in the hypocrisy that is America. No other war has eroded a US Citizen’s right to privacy than the Drug War and yet the opposers of these bills can only trot out the timeworn stereotypes over and over, while refusing to recognize the long term cost and damage to America and the World due to our hypocrisy over plants. In fact much of the War on Drugs started out as race based and our racism has cost a great deal of money while saving no lives.

    I will continue to state that America financed the 911 terrorists attacks due to our Drug War, when in April of 2001, the US taxpayer gave the Taliban 44 million dollars because they destroyed the poppy crop. Yes the voters of Wyoming, that helped send the Cheney’s to DC, put the Drug War above the principles of liberty and equality that America supposedly stands for. I could cite hundreds of examples of this Drug War hypocrisy that fall upon our citizens and citizens of the world, but unfortunately, Angus’s article nails a few close to home.

    1. A republican lawmaker is now worried about hospital rates, when most of the mask deniers, that raised hospital and nursing home deaths due to COVID came from that party is a rich vein of hypocrisy.

    2. Susan Gore is finally worried about children being exposed to pot and is seemingly willingly to continue to throw away our tax dollars on a losing Drug War. Wyoming Liberty does seem a little hypocritical, but hey whats new?

    3. “saving the Wyoming family unit” WOW, that is a laugher. The war on drugs decimated many family units through our criminalization of a plant. I am sure these statements go over well with the local supporters, but when looked through the lens of history are really short sighted.

    I grew up (60s & 70s) being told that Heroin and Cocaine were bad, but by the 2000s, Doctors in little white coats and armed with a prescription pad made synthetic meth (Adderal) and synthetic heroin (Opioid) part of a “normal life” that ended in terrible results. Foisting powerful drugs on the uneducated masses was a terrible idea, but some in Wyoming see benevolence in Doctors and Pharmacy boards, where all I see is co-conspirators in continuing to mislead the public about plants that can be used to help people as long as they are used in moderation.

    HB0209 is a good bill, but as with all things in Wyoming I suspect the culture warriors and their fear based rhetoric will kick this can down the road, costing more and saving no one.

    We shall see, but if I was able to bet on an outcome, I would say Wyoming will continue to fight the Drug War, while we de-fund education.

  5. Thank you so much for this reporting. As a nurse with many years experience treating patients with chronic pain, I am hopeful that Wyoming will move beyond its troglodyte mentality. on this subject.