This week, marijuana advocates with Wyoming NORML will begin collecting signatures for an initiative to legalize medical cannabis. The initiative, called the Peggy A. Kelley Wyoming Cannabis Act of 2016, would put the measure before voters in the 2016 election.
If successful, the act will add Wyoming to the list of 23 states that have legalized medical cannabis, sidestepping a Legislature that has opposed the use of cannabis for the last century.
The initiative takes its name from the late Peggy Kelley of Guernsey, one of the first women train engineers in Wyoming. She worked for BNSF Railway Co. for 15 years, driving coal trains from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
In the mid-1980s Kelley was making a run from Wendover, a Wyoming railroad siding, to Guernsey when acid vapors from a leaky locomotive battery permanently damaged her lungs. No longer able to work, she took a medical retirement and later developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
“She loved to sing, and she said it ruined her voice,” said Pam Wright, Kelley’s friend from Hartville. “She couldn’t sing Patsy Cline any more.” Like Kelley, Wright is also a former disabled railroad worker, and a cannabis advocate.
Decades after the accident, Kelley was diagnosed with lung cancer. Given only a short time to live, she found relief from pain through cannabis oil and marijuana, illegal drugs that made her feel better and that she credited with extending her life.
“It gave her longer [to live] than the doctors told her she was going to have, with some quality,” Wright said. “Her doctor didn’t know what she was using, but he told her to keep using it whatever it was.”
Kelley smuggled cannabis into Wyoming to treat herself, despite her fear of being caught. That experience turned her into a medical cannabis advocate. When the Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was founded in 2013, Kelley was the group’s second donor.
Kelley died from cancer in January, leading NORML to affix her name to the initiative, with the support of her three sons.
Gov. Mead opposes legalization
As the initiative forces Wyoming to consider medical cannabis legalization, Gov. Matt Mead (R) has organized the Marijuana Impact Assessment Council to evaluate the science surrounding the drug. At the same time, Mead has made clear that he opposes any legalization.
“We suffer because of substance abuse in this state and I remain against legalizing another substance that could add to the existing problem,” Mead said in a statement. “I want the voters of Wyoming to have access to good scientific evidence and a fair look at the pros and cons of the legalization of marijuana.”
Wyoming NORML members question if the group’s findings are already a foregone conclusion.
“I would tell Gov. Mead, ‘You’ve come out so strongly against it and spoken so strongly against it that we have to feel that you have a self-interest in preserving the status quo,’” said NORML Wyoming director Chris Christian of Jackson.
Like many cannabis supporters, she believes the drug’s potential benefits outweigh its harms. Medical cannabis users believe the drug can be used for pain management, controlling nausea and seizures, and to improve sleep.
“I don’t mean it does no harm,” Christian said. “I don’t think teenage boys should be using it.” At the same time, she believes that the changing laws in neighboring states and around the country mean that Wyoming can’t effectively shut out cannabis.
“We can’t pretend it is not out there any more. It’s here. People have it. They are using it, and they are going to jail for using a plant.”
The initiative process
NORML’s 4,000 members come from large and small towns including Cheyenne, Casper, Pinedale, Jackson, Hartville, and many others. The group’s director,Christian, aims to raise $15,000 to support the initiative using a GoFundMe campaign. Wyoming NORML rejected outside money to fund the campaign, instead turning to its own grassroots donors.
The group needs 25,000 signatures from registered voters by February to get the measure on the 2016 ballot. Members hope to secure 51,000 signatures to provide a cushion in case the Secretary of State disqualifies many of the signatures for not being properly registered to vote.
If successful in November 2016, the measure would be enacted within 90 days. Lawmakers could amend the law in the 2017 session before it becomes effective in July. If the initiative fails in 2016, Wyoming NORML plans to try again in 2018.
Details about the initiative
The Peggy Kelley Act was modeled after a similar initiative passed in Puerto Rico. Christian said it was intentionally written with broad language to allow for revisions in the future.
The act provides for the retail sale of marijuana and marijuana-infused products to patients with a medical certification granted by a physician. Marijuana dispensaries would be able to sell such products, along with marijuana accessories.
The Wyoming Liquor Commission in the Department of Revenue would regulate the production, sale, and taxation of cannabis. Christian said the liquor commission would be a lower-cost regulatory system than the Department of Health.
Under the act, medical marijuana certified patients would be able to possess six plants, with three being mature at any one time. The commercial production of hemp fiber would also be legalized.
Cannabis in Wyoming
Wyoming’s opposition to marijuana dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when newspapers printed sensational accounts of marijuana users who permanently lost their minds or committed terrible crimes while high. Many of the accounts singled out Mexicans and members of the “lower classes” as the primary users of the drug.
As many Mexicans came north during the Mexican Revolution, the popular name of the plant changed from cannabis or “hasheesh” to the Spanish marijuana or marihuana. The media accounts helped set the stage for a nationwide racially fueled backlash against the drug.
Wyoming outlawed marijuana either in 1915 or 1929, according to conflicting secondary sources. Today the penalties are strict, with up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for three ounces of cannabis or less. Possession of more than three ounces comes with a penalty of up to fives years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
That hasn’t stopped marijuana users from seeking to get a buzz, or deal with nausea, insomnia, or pain due to cancer, back pain, and other chronic conditions. For many the drug offers relief with far fewer of the serious side effects of prescription narcotics.
Pam Wright of Hartville uses prescription narcotics to control her chronic back pain, which is compounded by fibromyalgia and arthritis.
“I worry about liver damage, kidney damage; they just mess with your whole body,” Wright said of the narcotics. “I would love to not take them, and even if I could cut down the amount that I take that would be a blessing.”
Despite her advocacy for cannabis, Wright says she does not use it.
The regional situation
Voters in the state of Colorado legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2014 through a constitutional amendment. Since then cannabis sales have spiked in northern Colorado’s urban counties, many of which border Wyoming.
In the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho are the only states without laws allowing for medical marijuana. Even so, Wyoming voters are broadly in favor of medical marijuana.
A University of Wyoming poll conducted in 2014 found that 72 percent of respondents favored medical marijuana legalization, a number that has held steady since 2000. On the other hand Wyoming residents are also strongly against recreational legalization. The 2014 poll found that only 34 percent supported legal recreational use of the drug.
During the 2015 legislature, lawmakers passed a bill to allow the use of cannabis oil by patients suffering from seizures, meaning cancer patients would still be barred from using the drug. The oil contains cannabidiol but not tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. Read this Casper Star-Tribune article for more.
The science of cannabis
The illegal status of cannabis has put its use outside the realm of approved medicine and scientific review for decades. That situation has started to change as researchers tease out the medical and social effects of legal medical marijuana.
Clinical trials show the drug can help control nausea for cancer patients and reduce pain for those with multiple sclerosis, according to an article by Dr. David Wheeler of Wyoming Neurologic Associates in Casper. But beyond that, “there is very little in the way of clinical evidence that marijuana will treat or cure medical conditions,” Wheeler wrote.
Opponents to legalization are closely tracking the impact in states like Colorado, and compiling evidence to back their case. One of the most vocal regional opponents is the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), a coalition of law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors.
RMHIDTA releases annual reports tracking the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado, and provides lists of articles describing the negative effects of cannabis.
The group notes that Colorado has seen an increase in traffic fatalities in which marijuana was detected in the driver’s body. Media critics point out that marijuana can be detected in blood for days or weeks, so it is not necessarily a cause of traffic fatalities cited by RMHIDTA.
Wyoming NORML criticizes the group’s use of data that is four years old and not peer-reviewed by scientists. “Our government and our governor would like us to think that Colorado went to hell in a handbasket, but it didn’t,” Wright said.
Some peer-reviewed articles from recent years draw less negative conclusions, saying legal medical cannabis corresponds to reduced drunk-driving deaths, and does not increase the number of teens who smoke marijuana. Another study showed no significant difference in physical or mental health outcomes between men in their mid-30s who smoked marijuana in adolescence, and those who did not smoke.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post cited reports nationwide that suggest teen usage of marijuana has held flat or decreased in recent years, even as numerous states have passed various levels of legalization.
The American Medical Association has a policy calling for review of cannabis’ status as a federal schedule 1 controlled substance, which also includes drugs like heroin. The Association supports increased research on cannabis, though it does not endorse state legalization efforts.
Opponents and supporters
As Wyoming NORML works with partner groups like Wyoming Cannabis Activists and Weed Wyoming to organize rallies around the initiative, law enforcement groups are gearing up for a counter-campaign.
In a statement, the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police said it was considering the campaign to “get on the front end of a large-scale prevention movement by providing counter-marketing to the pro-legalization movement.”
When contacted by WyoFile, WASCOP director Byron Oedekoven declined to give specifics.
“It is a premature for us to say anything about the initiative because we are still working on our position,” he said. “We are working on our draft document and we hope to have that out as early as next week.”
NORML has already taken action to counter the WASCOP campaign by launching an online petition on MoveOn.org which had more than 200 signatures as of Aug. 9.
“They are putting out this propaganda against it, and if they are going to fight this they better fight fair,” Christian said.
In Hartville, Pam Wright appealed to Wyoming’s libertarian sensibility.
“It’s my body,” she said. “As long as I do no harm to no one else, I should be able to do with my body what I think benefits my body. … I am against the government telling me what to do in all forms. As long as I am breaking no law, then leave me alone.”