Wyoming is finally coming to a crossroads in its public policy choices about medical and recreational marijuana.

The state can continue to allow residents with cancer, Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other diseases to needlessly suffer, while 23 other states and the District of Columbia have compassionately decided to ease the pain and symptoms these patients experience.

Wyoming state officials can continue to ignore the public’s support of medical marijuana, which has held steady at about 72 percent since 2000.

Gov. Matt Mead and the Legislature can keep avoiding the issue, which has been around for decades, and continue to act like the laughable 1930s propaganda film “Reefer Madness” is a documentary.

Wyoming can continue to double down on punishment for pot possession and keep the highway patrol busy rounding up people who go to Colorado or Montana to purchase marijuana and bring it home. But if the state won’t reduce penalties that now put people with small amounts of marijuana behind bars for up to a year, officials need to recognize we’ll need to build more prisons to warehouse a slew of non-violent offenders at great expense.

Finally, the state can keep making criminals out of patients and their family members who just want to ease the suffering of loved ones.

Or, rather than maintaining the dishonest charade that marijuana is as dangerous as other Schedule 1 drugs such as meth and heroin, the drug should be properly classified. Pot isn’t a “gateway” drug to more harmful, addictive substances, no matter how many legislators declare it is so. In reality, numerous studies have concluded it pales in comparison to the health and safety risks of alcohol use, which has long been accepted by society as legal since the end of Prohibition.

Not surprisingly, Mead, a former federal prosecutor and ardent opponent of marijuana in any form, last week announced the creation of a new council to gauge the effects of marijuana in Wyoming. He made no pretense that the council is anything more than a vehicle to come up with “scientific” evidence that pot is dangerous and should not be legalized for either its medicinal properties or small amounts for recreation.

The governor probably would have preferred to do nothing about marijuana laws and not even bring the issue up for public discussion, but a drive to legalize medical marijuana through a proposed ballot initiative in 2016 has forced his hand.

The Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)  has already submitted its initial paperwork to the Secretary of State’s office and is working with lawyers to develop the proposed ballot language. But even with this head start and the fact nearly three-fourths of Wyomingites favor medical marijuana, the initiative is no slam dunk. NORML and its supporters definitely have their work cut out for them.

That’s because Wyoming has one of the toughest initiative processes in the nation. A group or individual who proposes a ballot measure to take the issue out of the hands of politicians and give the power directly to the people must obtain the signatures of 15 percent of the total voting in the last congressional election. The threshold for the 2016 election is more than 25,000 valid signatures.

Initiatives to gain ballot access in Wyoming have generally relied on paid petition circulators to get the required number of signatures. Because many are routinely rejected because they don’t meet the state’s standard for the signer being a registered voter, NORML is aiming at 50,000 signatures. That’s a tremendous amount in a state with a population of only about 580,000.

It makes sense, though, for the volunteers circulating petitions to be fired up about this issue after the Legislature has refused to address it for so long. If any grassroots effort truly has a chance to win in Wyoming, this could be the one.

Apparently Mead has come to the same conclusion, hence the creation of his new council. The governor told The Associated Press he doesn’t think Wyoming will legalize marijuana next year, but added, “I do think that there is a big push by folks who want to see it legalized to have this ballot initiative. And for all our citizens who may share my view on legalization being against it, I think that we need to gather as much data as we can.”

It sounds like nothing more than a council whose work will have a predetermined outcome: legal marijuana, whether it’s medical and recreational, will be depicted as bad for the state. The council will use whatever statistics, anecdotes and other so-called evidence it can gather and publicize. Mead said he plans to appoint representatives of his own office, the state health department, budget officials and the Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving.

Obviously the council will use state money to create an anti-marijuana campaign, whether the initiative process moves forward or not. It’s doubtful NORML will be able to raise anywhere near the level of money Mead might decide to spend on this endeavor, which diminishes its chances of reaching enough voters.

Pro-medical marijuana forces must counter the state’s arguments with vital voter information, including positive results for patients. The main problem proving that medical marijuana is effective against at least 10 different diseases is that it remains a Schedule 1 drug illegal under federal law, even if the feds haven’t made marijuana arrests a priority in recent years. Doctors and researchers don’t want to take the risk of possessing pot for drug trials, so there is still a limited amount of conclusive evidence available.

Still, in states where medical marijuana is legal, studies have shown positive results in treating patients with AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic pain, Crohn’s Disease, epilepsy, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.

In many cases, physicians have prescribed marijuana — or patients have self-medicated themselves using the drug — only after other pharmaceuticals have not worked. The benefits of further research and testing to find all of the possible uses of medical marijuana would greatly outweigh any risks for people who are already fighting diseases that have ravaged their minds and bodies.

Concerns that patients could get addicted to marijuana or other drugs is akin to a prison warden who won’t let a death row inmate smoke a last cigarette before he’s executed, because the state needs to keep him healthy until they kill him.

Many Wyoming patients who would benefit by using small, prescribed doses of marijuana are either in pain, dealing with diseases that are getting worse, or both. It makes absolutely no sense to withhold treatment that could improve their quality of life. It’s the antithesis of compassion when the state says, “We have something that could help you but we’ve decided not to let you try it.”

State lawmakers did overwhelmingly pass a bill to allow people with epilepsy who have seizures to take a form of cannabis that has little or no THC content — in other words, it won’t get anyone high, but children and adults who’ve used it have significantly improved.

Mead, though, let the bill become law without his signature. He didn’t explain why, but he likely just couldn’t bring himself to approve any “marijuana bill,” even if it wasn’t one.

Such reluctance doesn’t bode well for any chance the governor could change his mind and at least support medical marijuana in the next election, even if his council goes rogue and finds evidence that doesn’t match his beliefs. Here’s hoping they do.

— 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 WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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. An honest discussion of “medical marijuana” should mention that there has been little enforcement of the legitimacy of the prescriptions where it has been allowed. Most of those getting prescriptions are using for personal enjoyment. That said, the decriminalization of drug use is the proper choice for liberty minded citizens. It isn’t a proper function of government to regulate what you willfully put into your own body. The term legalization misses that point since it gives the impression that government has deigned to permit the activity among its subjects. Decriminalization also removes the subtle implication that government somehow endorses the activity. Rather it removes problematic drug use to its proper realm – a medical issue addressed by a person, their family and their medical professionals. It isn’t illegal to have typhoid fever, but steps can be taken to prevent its transmission to the public. That’s the proper framework for problematic drug use – medically treat the user while taking steps to protect the public.

    Chris Smith

  2. My legal state of residency is Colorado but I have recently moved back to casper. I have a chronic pain disorder that I was prescribed pain meds. I took pain meds everyday for 4 years! They helped but some days I was unable to function normally and my body became addicted to the medication. I decided on my own that I was no longer going to take narcotics this decision put me into the most painful withdrawals I have ever experienced. I started self medicating with marijuana in Colorado. It was like the pain was only a 1/4 of what it was before. I was able to function normally and on the days I did not medicate I had no adverse effects such as withdrawals. I am sad to say moving back to Wyoming has stopped my medication but I refuse to return to narcotics. So in closing thank you Matt Mead for withholding medication from me and many others causing us to be in unimaginable pain for no reason. Again thank you Matt Mead for pretending to be a doctor

    Dawna Trout

  3. I bow to the Greatness of Kerry Drake. Awesome article and so well done that I am going to have to spread this far and wide. We can’t thank you enough for this well-written and absolutely finely worded analysis of the situation that we, Wyoming NORML face.

    I have a research Question for your thinkpad: Why are people in Wyoming so proud of being a RED state? I was told recently that we are offensive in challenging the Legislature’s stranglehold on the citizenry by mocking the intolerance found in some folks here. We’re Turning a Red State Green – widely misinterpreted to allude to a non-existent Wyoming Green Party – duh – marijuana is GREEN??

    Deliberate or simply a misunderstanding of our intent? Some of us would very much like to grow it here – green up the place?

    Why are you Governor, like South Carolina, standing on a pride that has no real significance or meaning other than being close-minded and resistant to change? Maintaining tradition is one thing. Maintaining intolerance is quite another. It signifies that the concerted effort to thwart the wishes of Wyoming voters should be a message for all that we are going to have to resist this being crammed down our throats. We don’t much like that around here. Don’t be surprised at the voter turnout next year. The Millennials love us and will register just to vote for *this*, and against their prohibitionists.

    The are far too many Wyoming people that know better than to be buffaloed by an obvious attempt to waste money fighting an issue that if lost this round, will rear it’s UGLY head in 2018 again. Nothing new out of Mead who doesn’t mind wasting the tax-payer’s money to fight the Feds either. It’s time to heed this writer’s words and yield to science and progress Wyoming.

    Don’t even wait until we force it on you, guys. Legalize it now and save us all the pain.

    I Echo Kerry Drake, “at least support medical marijuana in the next election, even if his council goes rogue and finds evidence that doesn’t match his beliefs. Here’s hoping they do.”

    Thank you again, sir. Well done.

    Chris Christian
    Jackson, Wyoming

  4. Mead and his cronies have shown themselves as the ideologues they are, more interested in pandering to the most conservative elements in our state than bringing relief to the thousands who gain relief from disease processes by using cannabis, not to mention the thousands languishing in prison for simple possession of pot. He is an embarrassment, even by Wyoming’s political standards.

    Steven Monroe
    Casper, Wyoming