Welcome to the Wyoming Legislature’s Edible Marijuana Bill 3.0. After two years of inept wrangling to close a loophole in the state’s pot laws, will legislators ever come to consensus on a bill that answers the last great question in Wyoming: how many THC-infused gummy bears is a felony?
The short answer is no. After watching the Joint Judiciary Committee talk about the issue last week in Thermopolis, my conclusion is that it’s probably a hopeless endeavor.
My first clue was when so many committee members agreed that because they came oh-so-close last session, it will only take educating some of their colleagues about what they’ve done to propel them to victory. If you listen closely to the various interests in this unusual pot legislation, though, you will find there was precious little agreement anywhere in the room, much less the entire state.
It shouldn’t be that difficult to decide how the state regulates both the plant form of marijuana and the baked goods and candies that have become such a popular way of getting high, or curing what ails you, or any of the myriad reasons people smoke and eat what is, at its roots, a harmless flower.
A strong majority in the state — 81 percent, according to a University of Wyoming Survey Analysis Center poll last October — favor the legalization of medical cannabis. If people who feel that way would vote for like-minded candidates, there would be absolutely no reason why weed to reduce pain and give some comfort to thousands of people with scores of medical problems isn’t already the law of our land.
But they don’t, so who we have sitting in the chairs at the temporary Capitol building in Cheyenne for a month or two every year are people with a wide variety of apparently ingrained beliefs relating to the use of marijuana in all of its forms.
Only a few legislators want total legalization. Many more, but nothing close to a majority, favor decriminalizing it so being busted with a joint or two won’t land you in jail and ruin the rest of your life. Medical marijuana might win approval eventually, but the problem is that legislators in charge are so obsessed with resolving this THC gummy bear/brownies/soda pop issue that they’ve decided the state can’t move forward with what people really want until they come up with an answer.
Judges started the whole problem
This whole problem started when a couple of Wyoming judges decided, correctly, that because the state’s marijuana laws are confined to the plant form, they had to throw out felony charges against anyone caught with edible pot. In one case three years ago, a Laramie County judge dismissed charges against a man stopped with about two pounds of edible marijuana in his vehicle.
In unison the tough-on-crime zealots in Wyoming screamed “What!?” when they realized someone could drive across the state with a million pot gummy bears in their vehicle and the worst they could be charged with is a misdemeanor. Now, even a marijuana misdemeanor is a lot of crime-and-punishment in Wyoming: Possessing up to three ounces of pot in plant form can put someone in jail for up to a year, plus a $1,000 fine. That’s one of the harshest sentences for first-time offenders in the country.
But it pales in comparison to what the state can charge someone who possesses more than three ounces — a felony up to five years and a fine of $10,000. “That’s more like it,” thought Wyoming prosecutors, who made felonizing edibles a top legislative goal.
Pity the poor prosecutors, if one is so inclined, when they saw what they were up against. Some lawmakers want to make possession of small amounts of pot the equivalent of getting a $20 parking ticket with no criminal record. That doesn’t square with the idea of locking someone up and throwing away the key for eating products that also contain THC.
After the embarrassing 2015 session, when committees met interminably but came up with no way to close the edible loophole, the Legislative Management Council put the issue in the hands of the Joint Judiciary Committee as an interim topic to solve by 2016. But when the interim ended, members still couldn’t figure out how they should calculate the amount of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, or appropriate penalties. So it did nothing.
Freshman Rep. Jared Olsen (R, H-11, Cheyenne) sponsored a bill that was kind of like a “greatest hits” version of what people told the interim committee they wanted. Initially it dropped the first-time offense for possessing less than three ounces of plant form or edible marijuana to no more than 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. But legislators kept increasing the penalties for subsequent offenses, so a fourth conviction would net five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The House passed Olsen’s bill, 52-6. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee went to work, and increased the amount of edibles to 8 ounces or less, and suddenly the plant form of marijuana was completely removed from the measure. That ticked off the folks at the Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, who only agreed to support the bill if it greatly reduced the penalty for a first offense of having 3 ounces or less of the plant form.
The Senate voted 20-10 to approve its version. But the House rejected the Senate’s work 28-30, and a conference committee that worked until the final hours of the session couldn’t reach a compromise.
So here we are: the Management Council gave the edibles bill back to Joint Judiciary, but instead of being No. 1 with a bullet, the bill’s priority is literally now No. 10 with an anchor. The council ordered the committee to focus only on felonizing edibles; none of those other proposals to reduce the punishment for pot you can smoke instead of eat, thank you.
And don’t even mention medical marijuana, because until the edible issue is solved it’s a non-starter with this crowd.
While Senate members praised themselves in Thermopolis for backing a bill that almost won the House’s support, there was still a lot of grumbling. Frank Latta, a former Gillette legislator who now heads Wyoming NORML, dared to suggest that edible pot isn’t a public safety issue so let’s just take things slow and get the law right.
That prompted a “how dare you” vibe from some House members who believe pot is a gateway drug to heroin. They were quick to claim that edible pot has hospitalized a lot of kids who barely survived, and some of them are jumping off buildings, etc. A second NORML member said no, if you let kids sleep it off nothing will happen, and pot in any form has never killed anyone. Which, I’m not kidding, almost made some of the House members’ heads explode right there at the Day’s Inn. It may have taken a fervent prayer from the clean-up crew to keep it from happening.
A few months ago, in this very space, I predicted Wyoming will pass medical marijuana because it doesn’t make sense to deprive law-abiding citizens of something that will help so many people. Now, I have my doubts.
My theory is that the guys in charge at the Legislature, who are members of my generation or older, watched the same Sonny and Cher drug films in health class that I did. Only instead of realizing that their “marijuana is a gateway drug” message was propaganda, not the truth, the guys accepted it as reality and never looked back.
The reason they won’t ever vote for medical marijuana is simple: pot is bad and it can’t help anyone. Unless a marijuana prescription from a doctor helps one of their friends or relatives, they won’t change their minds.
Meanwhile, the gap is far too wide between legislators who want to stop locking people up for nonviolent drug crimes and those who want to mete out the most severe punishment possible for eating or possessing a lot of pot brownies. I hope my assessment is wrong. I would be happy if legislators finally decide on an edible bill and then do what the public wants: pass medical marijuana.
WyoFile is a nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.