(Opinion) — Wyoming lawmakers who oppose medical marijuana and refuse to reduce the state’s draconian penalties for possessing pot parrot the same bogus excuse year after year.
They simply point to Colorado and say Wyoming shouldn’t do anything at all about the issue until we know the results of what they foolishly deride as that state’s grand “experiment.” But if legislators quit worrying about any fallout they might suffer, they would realize our southern neighbors are raising millions in tax revenue annually while saving money by not incarcerating much of their population.
The Wyoming Legislature’s lack of political will to change marijuana laws is getting old. Fortunately the results of several marijuana ballot measures across the country may give proponents here some new material, and perhaps even help legislators realize that easing people’s suffering from myriad health problems is one of the best things they can do for their constituents.
We already know that medical marijuana is something a majority of people in Wyoming want. An October poll conducted by the Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming shows that 81 percent of residents support the legalization of medical cannabis.
This column is being written prior to the Nov. 8 elections, so I don’t know the fate of marijuana ballot measures in nine states. Ballot measures in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada seek to allow and regulate the recreational use and sale of marijuana. Four other states — Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana — will consider initiatives to legalize medical marijuana.
The list could have been even longer. Missouri appeared set to vote on a statewide proposition to permit physician-supervised use of marijuana, but a circuit court judge upheld a decision by election officials that a technical error should disqualify thousands of petition signatures aimed at getting that proposition on the ballot next week.
Legalization advocates hope that if all or most of the initiatives pass, it will put pressure on the federal government to change its outdated marijuana policy, which now classifies pot as a Schedule 1 drug — the same as heroin. While several states have either decriminalized marijuana possession, approved medical marijuana or chosen full-blown legalization, Wyoming is stuck in the Dark Ages.
Draconian drug policies
Marijuana laws in the Equality State are obscenely harsh.
Being under the influence of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $750 fine. Possessing less than 3 ounces is also a misdemeanor, but the penalty increases to up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
A person is charged with a felony if caught with more than 3 ounces — which isn’t a huge amount — and can be sentenced for up to five years and fined $10,000.
Growing any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a six-month sentence and a $1,000 fine. However, the sale and/or distribution of any amount can land a person in prison for 10 years with a $10,000 fine.
For the past three years the legislature has seen a bill to make possession of small amounts of marijuana an offense that would earn a ticket, similar to one issued for a parking violation. The bill would have made possessing up to a half-ounce of marijuana subject to a civil penalty of $50. The fine would have doubled for possessing up to an ounce.
The version of the bill proposed for the 2016 budget session last spring needed 40 yes votes to be introduced but only received 20. The sponsor plans to keep tweaking the measure until he can garner enough supporters to get it passed.
In 2014, a similar UW poll showed 62 percent of Wyoming residents essentially support the concept, but that question apparently was not asked in this year’s poll.
Medical use of marijuana is the only use the Legislature has begrudgingly considered before routinely spiking such bills, but support is climbing for legalizing recreational use of the drug in Wyoming. The UW poll found 41 percent approval, and it’s not difficult to imagine the figure topping 50 percent in a few years as baby boomer opponents in charge of the state’s law-making machinery either lose elections or die off.
But until either of those outcomes changes the negative attitude of the Legislature, we will continue to hear opponents come up with every horrible consequence of cannabis use imaginable. These so-called facts are actually well-known myths not borne out by research of what has actually happened.
Here are just a few: Opponents claim smoking weed will cause lung cancer, increase the number of youths who use marijuana, and increase the number of motorists who drive impaired.
Salynn Boyles of WebMD cited studies that indicate even long-term marijuana users — people who have smoked more than 22,000 joints — have no greater risk of lung cancer than those who use marijuana infrequently or not at all.
Time Magazine reported in 2011 that research that compared rates of teen marijuana use in Rhode Island, which approved medical marijuana, and Massachusetts, which did not, discovered no difference in use by teens in the two states.
Time also reported the same year about a 2011 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in 13 states that legalized medical marijuana. It found that fatal car wrecks declined by 9 percent. This won’t go over well with state highway officials who run the “Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving” campaign, but NHTSA said the admittedly counterintuitive statistic may be because after the law passed fewer people are now driving while drunk.
Change is coming
I’ve written about reforming Wyoming marijuana laws for more than two decades. While some journalists and readers have told me I’m crazy, I’m more confident than ever that the state will approve medical marijuana. Legalization of adult private use will take longer, but it’s coming, too.
Why? There are simply too many reasons for it not to finally pass. Here are the primary ones:
- Support for medical marijuana is overwhelming. Even I’m surprised that four out of every five Wyomingites favor the law, but it makes sense. It is anachronistic that many legislators fear that just mentioning legal marijuana is enough to lose their seats. Even if lawmakers haven’t gotten the message, residents of all ages view medical marijuana as the compassionate way to relieve the pain and suffering of others, whether it be family members, friends or complete strangers. If marijuana prescribed by a physician can help a cancer patient cope with chemotherapy, stop or reduce epileptic seizures, treat glaucoma, stop cancer cells from spreading and potentially slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, who among us should have the right to prohibit medical marijuana? Certainly not the Wyoming Legislature.
- Research has shown that medicinal cannabis may help treat military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Two powerful groups — the 2.5 million-member American Legion and American Veterans, or AMVETS — support medical marijuana. Under federal law, VA doctors are not permitted to recommend cannabis therapy to veterans — even if they live in states that permit medical marijuana! Congress has passed some terrible policies that harm veterans physically and mentally, leaving them to deal with myriad health problems from wars their leaders ordered. Hopefully other organizations and unions will combine to support veterans and convince politicians that putting more money into PTSD and TBI research is small payment for what we owe veterans.
- The tax revenue from marijuana sales will be too much for states like Wyoming to reject if allowing medical or recreational use turns out to be a mistake: the state won’t be able to go back. As some legislators who are marijuana opponents have urged their colleagues, let’s look at how much Colorado has raised from legal pot sales. Marijuana-related tax revenue in Colorado totaled $129 million for the year ending May 31. That’s far above the initial yearly estimate of $70 million when voters were asked to approve recreational marijuana. The state of Washington’s tax revenues from pot totaled $220 million last year, compared to $162 million budgeted.
Tonight, all eyes will be on the presidential race and other major federal and state contests, but I’ll still closely watch the marijuana initiatives. If they pass it could speed up what happens here.
My nightmare, though, is that some legislator will come to work in January and announce that while Colorado has benefited from its marijuana laws and other states have decided to follow suit, we must insist on a “Wyoming way” to approve medical marijuana. Remind anyone of something else — Medicaid expansion?
If that happens, Wyoming lawmakers who agree with that deal-breaker should stick their heads in the sand. And we should help them do it.