(Opinion) — It’s not legal to toke up in Wyoming yet, but the day is coming sooner than many might think.
When it does, residents of the Equality State won’t suddenly develop “reefer madness” despite the fears of some of my conservative friends (yes, I do have a few). In the case of medical marijuana, the quality of life for people who suffer from a variety of diseases or other debilitating medical conditions will greatly improve.
How do I know this? Because that’s what has happened in the 23 states that have already approved medical marijuana. Almost 40 percent of Americans live in jurisdictions with compassionate medical marijuana laws. Why isn’t Wyoming one of them?
When recreational use of marijuana becomes as common as buying alcohol and cigarettes, studies point to some positive changes for adults that don’t occur with those legal substances. I’ll get to the facts of marijuana’s medical benefits shortly.
The war on marijuana, which has always been a costly failure, is over. The federal Justice Department no longer considers busting pot smokers as a priority. The overall effect of improperly classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug like heroin has resulted in full prisons, ruined young lives and prosperous drug cartels.
It’s also helped some politicians score points with voters by peddling such phony claims as marijuana being a “gateway” to harmful drugs. Their claims are propaganda, not facts, and they don’t make us safer or healthier.
Times are changing in Wyoming — not nearly fast enough for some of us, but things are moving in the right direction, which politically is a turn to the left. The war on marijuana here is being fought on two fronts: by some state lawmakers who are ahead of many of their colleagues, and by citizens who are uniting to change the laws themselves
Polls conducted at the University of Wyoming have been consistent in recent years, showing about 72 percent support medical marijuana. Even in this conservative state, lawmakers who absolutely refuse to do what nearly three-fourths of the public demands will eventually find themselves voted out of office. The only question is how long it will take.
Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) is bringing back his proposal to lower the state’s penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. House Bill 3 would make having less than half an ounce subject to a civil fine of $50; between half an ounce and an ounce would raise the amount of the ticket to $100. The penalty would be more appropriately the equivalent of a speeding ticket.
Will HB 3 pass this year? No, there’s a zero percent chance of that happening. Last year Wyoming House representatives voted 38-22 against a similar bill, and during the month-long budget session beginning Feb. 8 a measure will need two-thirds support just to be introduced. To reach that level would require 18 opponents who are coming back to the Legislature to change their minds, and that’s simply not remotely possible.
But it will provide another opportunity to show legislators and voters why it is in the state’s best interest to decriminalize marijuana possession for a first or second offense Both would be only a misdemeanor under Byrd’s bill. The fines won’t be a huge moneymaker for any city or county, but the shift would keep people from needless felony records, and the jail time and ruined employment and educational prospects that come with them
Byrd is also sponsoring HB 7, a companion bill that would allow people from other states with prescriptions for medical marijuana to legally possess the substance in Wyoming. With medical marijuana legal in neighboring Colorado and Montana, it makes sense to allow tourists to come into the state without the fear of being arrested.
In the meantime, supporters of medical marijuana are waging their own campaign to get the issue on the election ballot in 2017. They are already off to a good start.
The Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has collected 10,000 signatures on its petition in only five months. A total of 25,673 signatures must be garnered in the next 13 months, which shouldn’t be hard to obtain at the rate the group is going. NORML’s goal is to get twice as many signatures as necessary to obtain ballot access because some names will inevitably be disqualified because the signers are not registered voters.
That’s a pretty high bar, but it’s self-imposed. The likelihood of having that many signatures rejected by election officials is fairly small. The grassroots campaign should gain momentum as it literally heats up during the summer and more people are outside available to be approached.
NORML Wyoming spokeswoman Carrie Satterwhite said the group has the fewest number of volunteer petition circulators in the conservative northeast part of the state, but that region will be targeted in the upcoming months. NORML has asked for permission to place tables at community colleges in Sheridan and Gillette where people can learn about the issue and sign petitions.
Satterwhite said Wyoming NORML is encouraging people to write letters to the editor in support of HB 3. Like many state residents, she strongly believes decriminalization is necessary.
“Why are we going after kids with 2 grams of marijuana when we have a terrible heroin and meth problem that’s out of control?” she asked. Satterwhite noted a recent documentary showed how the use of marijuana is actually helping heroin and meth addicts clean up in Cape Cod, Maryland.
“The drug cartels are losing money, so they’re shipping heroin that is purer than they had been before to get kids hooked on hard drugs,” Satterwhite said. “It’s really sad. Fourteen hundred kids have died of heroin overdoses [in East Coast cities]. There’s also been many suicides.”
The NORML spokeswoman noted that in 2015 the Legislature passed a bill that legalized the possession of cannabidiol (CBD.) However, people can’t get CBD because it can’t be manufactured in the state.
Cannabidiol oil does not contain THC, the active ingredient in cannabis that gets users high. Scientists discovered CBD can be used to treat people with epileptic seizures. It may also have antipsychotic effects; clinical trials have shown patients with schizophrenia who have been given doses of CBD have fewer psychotic episodes.
“There’s hundreds of people literally crying that I’ve run into while circulating these petitions,” Satterwhite said. “They’re saying, ‘Just tell us where to get the CBD.’ But I can’t help them, because I don’t know where they can get it either. … Legislators threw us a bone, but you can’t produce any CBD in Wyoming and you can’t take it across state lines without breaking the federal laws.”
Business Insider points to 23 health benefits of using medical marijuana, including treatment of the eye disease glaucoma, reducing some of the pain and nausea from chemotherapy, and stimulating the appetite of cancer patients.
Pot has been shown to decrease anxiety, slow the progression of Alzheimer’ disease and ease the pain of multiple sclerosis. Medical marijuana lessens side effects from treating hepatitis C and increases treatment effectiveness, helps reverse the carcinogenic effects of tobacco and improve lung health, treats inflammatory bowel diseases and soothes tremors for people with Parkinson’s disease.
It also helps veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, protects the brain after a stroke and relieves arthritis discomfort.
If any other drug provided even a fraction of the benefits that medical marijuana does, it would already be legal in Wyoming and the other 26 states where it is now banned. Several generations of Americans have been taught to equate using weed with encouraging the use of harder drugs, and totally ignore the myriad medical benefits.
It’s difficult to undo the decades of fear related to using marijuana, and some people will continue refusing to make marijuana legal despite the fact it has scientifically been proven to be a beneficial medical resource.
Eventually, Wyoming will embrace the medical marijuana laws that are now helping reduce the symptoms of thousands of sick people in other states. Reason and compassion will prevail, but it will take more time for Wyoming lawmakers to see the light and do what’s right to help constituents who needlessly suffer.
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