For years I’ve heard people say Wyoming lawmakers will never legalize marijuana, and if they do, we’ll be the last state to go down that road.

I’ve generally agreed with that sentiment, primarily because voters who say they want the government to stay out of their lives keep electing legislators intent on doing the opposite. They pass laws taking away women’s reproductive freedom, sponsor anti-LGBTQ bills and zealously work to restrict people’s right to vote.

To think that a majority of this bunch would let Wyomingites smoke a joint in the privacy of their homes seems like a fantasy. A “devil’s weed” mentality has dominated the Legislature for as long as I can remember. I’ve listened to countless hours of testimony about how marijuana is a gateway drug, just as dangerous as heroin and the scourge of a decent society.

Legislators have occasionally sponsored bills to decriminalize cannabis possession or allow medical marijuana over the years, but they are always shot down by overwhelming margins. 

Will the 2021 session be any different when it comes to passing a comprehensive, reasonable law regulating marijuana in Wyoming? It just might be. The House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana by a 6-3 vote last Friday.

The measure now goes to the full House, where it should get a fair hearing. House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) is a co-sponsor.

The bill’s primary sponsor, House Majority Whip Jared Olsen, is a Republican Cheyenne attorney who will never remind anyone of Cheech or Chong. He’s a conservative who says he’s never even tried marijuana. Olsen even started out on the opposite side of the issue, trying to close a loophole a few years ago that allowed for edible marijuana products without penalties.

But in 2021, he leads a band of strange political bedfellows that consists of moderate Republicans, progressive Democrats, the body’s lone Libertarian and GOP conservatives with a libertarian bent. Collectively, they know unfair drug laws when they see them, and the Equality State has some of the harshest statutes on the books.

Wyoming is one of only six states that totally prohibit marijuana. Possession of any quantity up to 3 ounces — even residue in a pipe — is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine.

A marijuana conviction may make a young person ineligible for student loans and bar them from many federal or state jobs. It can be a case of one strike and you’re out.

Most of HB 209’s supporters — even Olsen — don’t expect the bill to pass this session. Instead, they say they want to start a serious discussion about the issue that could ultimately lead to its approval.

But here are eight reasons why the time to enact an enlightened marijuana law is right now:

  1. Public perception. A University of Wyoming Survey Analysis Center poll conducted in December found that 54% of Wyoming residents support allowing adults to legally possess marijuana for personal use. Meanwhile, 85% backed medical marijuana.
  2. New revenue. Wyoming is hurting for money, with legislators trying to slash funding for education, health and social services in order to balance the state budget. The Department of Revenue estimates state and local governments could see up to $50 million per year from a 30% excise tax on retail marijuana sales at dispensaries plus licensure fees. That includes about $30 million for public schools.
  3. Criminal justice reform. It doesn’t make economic sense to keep locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses. A Department of Corrections fact sheet sent to legislators doesn’t break down whether individuals convicted of marijuana possession had other drug-related offenses. But 335 Wyoming inmates are now incarcerated for pot, and each inmate costs about $42,340 annually. Another 2,501 are on supervision, which costs $2,125 per offender per year. Add ‘em up and it’s almost $20 million.
  4. Reasonable limits. Under the bill, adults over 21 can have up to 3 ounces of flower, 16 ounces of edible cannabis product, 72 ounces of liquid product and up to 30 grams of concentrate. Adults would also have the legal option to cultivate up to a dozen flowering, female plants at home that could yield up to 16 ounces of cannabis. 
  5. Humanitarian concerns. One reason why public support is so strong for medical marijuana is that people understand cannabis helps relieve pain and improves the quality of life for patients with cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, migraines, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other medical conditions. Legislators may have family members or friends who have benefited from marijuana use, and that can influence their votes.
  6. Alternatives to other drugs. Addiction and overuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, is a widespread problem. In 2018, Wyoming had 40 drug overdose deaths involving opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Unlike many prescription drugs, which can be highly addictive, marijuana is not known to cause dependence in most users.
  7. Public pressure. Never underestimate the power of lobbying legislators, whether it’s in person or via phone calls and emails. Four of the nine House Judiciary Committee members signed onto HB 209, which meant only one more was needed to win approval. Two swing voters — Reps. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) and Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) — said while they may ultimately vote no on the bill, strong public reaction on both sides of the issue convinced them to support bringing it to the House floor for debate.
  8. Heading off a referendum. Many legislators bristle at the thought of voters taking it upon themselves to pass laws, which is one reason the state is among the strictest in the country for public access to ballot initiatives. Four of Wyoming’s neighboring states — Colorado, Utah, Montana and South Dakota — took the referendum route to some form of legalization. While obtaining enough registered voters’ signatures for a ballot initiative could be expensive, it’s not necessarily cost-prohibitive for a group with deep pockets. I’ve heard several legislators say they would rather craft marijuana laws themselves than have to amend the voters’ handiwork.

Despite all the reasons in favor of passing HB 209, I know it’s an uphill battle. Law enforcement will intensely lobby against the measure, as it has fought similar bills for years, and that alone may sink this year’s effort.

But it’s difficult for me to understand why so many Wyoming legislators still think we’re living in the age of “Reefer Madness,” where marijuana is corrupting our youth and destroying society’s moral values. 

I’m a baby boomer, and I don’t know many people of my generation who haven’t at least tried marijuana. I can’t imagine that legislators my age, even the most conservative ones, all had bad experiences.

I’ve known several people who have ruined their minds and bodies abusing alcohol and other drugs, habits that often lead to reckless or deadly behavior that puts others at risk. But for the most part, I think people who use marijuana tend to be laid back and not prone to engage in violence. 

People don’t belong in prison for using a plant that has been around for thousands of years and benefits people with myriad health conditions. If you believe Wyoming is an independent, live-and-let-live state, please tell your senator or representative that just having a nice conversation about marijuana laws and kicking the can down the road again won’t cut it this year.

It’s time for them to lead on this issue or get out of the way.

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. The time may be right , but most of the Wyoming legislature is still living in the past.

    1. The time is right, like it or not. When Joe, and Kamala legalize it at the federal level, Wyoming will be forced to comply with federal law as it advances into the future.

      Advantage Wyoming would have right now is money to stimulate our struggling economy. It would create jobs needed across the state.
      Would reduce the prison population cost, and expenses associated with prosecution.

      Fighting the enevitable future only puts us behind, if implemented the state would start gaining revenue immediately., money that will stay in the state.
      We can wait for the government to put their hands in it, then all of rhe revenue will end up in Washington DCs pockets.
      Agree with it or not the day is coming…..

  2. Data from study of marijuana legalization in Colorado (https://centennial.ccu.edu/policy-briefs/marijuana-costs/)

    For every dollar gained in tax revenue, Coloradans spent approximately $4.50 to mitigate the effects of legalization
    Costs related to the healthcare system and from high school drop-outs are the largest cost contributors
    While people who attended college and use marijuana has grown since legalization, marijuana use remains more prevalent in the population with less education
    Research shows a connection between marijuana use and the use of alcohol and other substances
    Calls to Poison Control related to marijuana increased dramatically since legalization of medical marijuana and legalization of recreational marijuana
    About 15 people are severely burned as a result of marijuana use per year
    People who use marijuana more frequently tend to be less physically active, and a sedentary or inactive lifestyle is associated with increased medical costs
    Adult marijuana users generally have lower educational attainment than non-users
    Research does suggest that long-term marijuana use may lead to reduced cognitive ability, particularly in people who begin using it before they turn 18
    Yearly cost-estimates for marijuana users: $2,200 for heavy users, $1,250 for moderate users, $650 for light users
    69% of marijuana users say they have driven under the influence of marijuana at least once, and 27% admit to driving under the influence on a daily basis
    The estimated costs of DUIs for people who tested positive for marijuana only in 2016 approaches $25 million
    The marijuana industry used enough electricity to power 32,355 homes in 2016
    In 2016, the marijuana industry was responsible for approximately 393,053 pounds of CO2 emissions
    Marijuana packaging yielded over 18.78 million pieces of plastic

    1. That is a lot of pure nonsense developed from the Colorado cult to refers to itself as a christan “university”

    2. Very quickly, if you look at actual data, you see big fundamental problems with what this ‘study’ is attempting to claim, or at least imply.

      One easy example: The total number of Marijuana-related arrests and court filings in Colorado are down by over 50% since legalization (since most marijuana arrests prior to legalization were for ‘possession’). So how does half as many marijuana-related arrests and court filings somehow result in INCREASED costs of Marijuana-related arrests to Colorado and Coloradans? Well, it doesn’t. The implication of this ‘study’ that somehow Colorado and Coloradans have been cost an extra $7,000,000 by arresting and charging half as many people for marijuana-related reasons is outright false, and plainly absurd.

      Another pretty easy example is their their figure for High School dropouts.

      The actual data: Since legalization, high school dropouts totals AND dropout rates have decreased slightly in Colorado. Additionally, less students have also been expelled, suspended, and referred to law enforcement for marijuana-related reasons since legalization, with the state actively engaged in a concerted effort to reduce these specific numbers even further. (Which presents some very big problems for this report’s assumptions and methodology for calculating their ‘high school dropout costs’)

      Additionally, there is no statistically significant difference in youth usage rates of marijuana in Colorado since legalization. In fact, youth usage of Marijuana in Colorado tracks very closely with the national average, before and after legalization. That national average, and Colorado’s rate of youth usage with it, have actually declined since Legalization in Colorado. So less youth are using Marijuana now than were using before Colorado legalized Marijuana.

      So that means that according to this ‘study’, legalization somehow cost Colorado and Coloradans >$400 million due to ‘high school dropouts’ despite the fact that after legalization, less students are dropping out of high school in Colorado; less students are being expelled, suspended, and referred to law-enforcement for marijuana; and less students are using Marijuana.

      Another false and absurd claim, contradicted by the actual data.

      Don’t get me wrong though, that isn’t to say there aren’t real issues and costs. Colorado is EXHAUSTIVELY studying all these impacts. It is not all sunshine and roses. There are downsides. But so far at least, the downsides are not outweighing the upsides, and tweaks and changes to rules, regulations and policies are being considered and made to address some of those issues.

  3. As usual Kerry, another article that hits the issue square on the head. Loved, and agree with your observation about our electorate choosing “conservative” legislators that run on getting government out of our lives, but then work hard to limit personal rights. It’s has been, and even more so now, time for Wyoming to become more progressive and get in step with the with the rest of the world. But our citizens have to absorb the concept and vote accordingly. Regrettably, I don’t think I’ll live enough more years (another life time?) to see my native state change.

  4. I am in my eighties and like many old folks have trouble sleeping. When spending time in Wash. State with family I tried marijuana edibles that made my insomnia go away.

    It was incredible how little it took and how much it helped.

    I fully support this bill as written and congratulate those legislators who are stepping out of the traditional dark ages of Wyoming politics.

  5. In addition to the many reasons to support legalization listed above, add to the list that it is much safer than alcohol as well as the vast array of other substances available to abuse like hair spray for instance. I would rather that my kids were smoking marijuana than abusing alcohol any day. Let’s face it, alcohol has always been the gateway drug. I know that I got drunk long before I ever tried marijuana. It is just that our parents kept alcohol in a cupboard in the kitchen, so it couldn’t be too dangerous, right? We should all be cheering that some in the Wyoming legislature are accepting the idea that we are no longer living in the “50’s. Wyoming needs the revenue and recreational and medicinal marijuana is legal in Montana, Colorado and voters approved use in South Dakota although the outcome there remains to be seen.