Marijuana legalization bill gains committee approval
CHEYENNE — Wyoming is one of six states where marijuana remains fully illegal without any sort of decriminalization. But that could change in the near future, as state lawmakers advanced a bill Friday that would open the door for wide-ranging forms of cannabis to be grown and sold in Wyoming.
Members of the Legislature’s House Judiciary Committee considered two marijuana-focused bills during their meeting Friday, one of which would require the state health officer to establish a report on the implementation of medical marijuana in Wyoming. While that proposal did not receive the committee’s endorsement, the other bill, which provides a detailed road map authorizing the legalization and regulation of marijuana, won committee approval by a 6-3 vote.
Lawmakers heard several hours worth of testimony during their meeting Friday, with public comment limited to a couple minutes per individual due to the large number of people wishing to speak.
The committee first heard from Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, the primary sponsor of House Bill 82, which would authorize an implementation report on medical marijuana. Henderson described the proposal as a good start to set the parameters for medical marijuana use in the state.
“To me, it’s not a question of if we’re going to legalize marijuana – it’s a question of when,” Henderson said.
“I think Wyoming needs to be a leader, just like we are in other things, like blockchain technology, the sandbox and so forth, in terms of legislation required to help set things in motion when they need to be and have that line of communication set up.”
Although Henderson’s proposal was not advanced by the committee Friday, his points were relevant to the larger discussion, as other lawmakers also mentioned the likelihood of marijuana legalization in Wyoming, either through sweeping federal action under the new presidential administration or through a ballot initiative in the state.
The increasing possibility of legalization was one reason that Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, brought his proposal, House Bill 209, which would allow for the cultivation and sale of marijuana and products such as edibles in the state.
Olsen, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and emphasized he was not a “marijuana advocate,” noted a University of Wyoming survey from last year found that 54 percent of state residents support legalizing marijuana for personal use – up from 37 percent in the same survey in 2014. The recent survey also found that 85 percent of Wyoming residents support legalization of medical marijuana.
With the increasing support for marijuana use and the growing possibility of nationwide legalization, Olsen argued his bill would allow lawmakers “to put our arms around it and decided we want it to look like” proactively, rather than waiting to react to whatever may happen federally.
Marijuana legalization in Wyoming could also bring a financial windfall to the state. Through a 30-percent excise tax included in the bill, legalization would bring roughly $47 million annually to the state, of which about $30 million would go to fund public schools, according to projections included with the bill.
Those figures were based on estimates from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture that legalization would bring 100 cultivation facilities, 50 manufacturing facilities, 25 secure transporters, five testing facilities, 200 retail stores and 50 “microbusinesses” into the state. Olsen acknowledged those estimates could be higher than in reality, but he was confident that some job creation would come through legalization.
“The reality is that if there were one cultivator, that would be new jobs in Wyoming,” Olsen said.
Beyond legalization’s potential for job creation and new tax revenue, other supporters of Olsen’s bill spoke on the medical benefits that the drug can bring to some people. Rep. Mark Baker, R-Green River, who co-sponsored both bills considered by the committee, described his history of serious digestive issues that began during his military tenure and led to him having his colon removed.
“Part of the time (since that procedure), I’ve utilized access to cannabis, and I can tell you this: Life is much easier physically with cannabis than it is without,” Baker said.
Olsen’s bill would also prohibit marijuana consumption in public, meaning people could only smoke or consume marijuana in their private residences.
While several co-sponsors of Olsen’s bill spoke in favor of the legislation, opinions from members of the public who testified were more mixed.
Some, like Baker, emphasized the medical benefits of marijuana. Frank Latta, a former state lawmaker and a former mayor of Gillette, told the committee of his struggles with multiple sclerosis, which led to him being prescribed an opioid. Getting off the drug, Latta said, induced heroine-like withdrawal symptoms.
“As I went in to these doctors, every doctor has told me I would be much better served using marijuana to take care of my spasticity problems than an opioid,” Latta said. “You’re going to become addicted to the opioid, because as you take opioids ... they lose their effect, so you got to keep taking more and more, and as you take more and more, you become more and more addicted.”
But others who testified were concerned about marijuana’s potential effects on Wyoming’s youth. Luke Niforatos, a Colorado resident and executive vice president of the nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana, pointed to multiple states, such as California and Nevada, that have seen increases in youth marijuana consumption since legalizing the drug. He also argued legalization would not eliminate the black market for marijuana in Wyoming, as states such as California have seen booms in their illegal pot markets in the years since legalization.
Susan Gore, the founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, who said she was speaking as a private citizen, spoke against the proposals due to the potential risks posed to babies whose mothers smoke marijuana during pregnancies.
The Wyoming Medical Society, meanwhile, took an oppositional stance to medical marijuana and a neutral position on the broader legalization legislation. Executive Director Sheila Bush told the committee that the organization’s position was largely due to the lack of a federal regulatory environment to study medical marijuana, leaving physicians in a difficult position to offer guidance to patients.
“You have a population and a desired substance, and you put physicians as gatekeepers in the middle, and then they’re kind of hung out to dry in a sense, because there isn’t any evidence on how to safely make those recommendations,” Bush told the committee.
Lawmakers on the committee also heard from former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is now a resident of Teton County. Testifying virtually, like many others who spoke to the committee, Chafee was in favor of Olsen’s bill, which he said would create a “lucrative” new revenue stream for the state.
“We all want to see these revenues go to necessary government services and to keep taxes down,” Chafee said.
Due to time constraints, the committee had to close public comment despite many people still hoping to speak on the topic. Members of the House Judiciary Committee then advanced House Bill 209 by a 6-3 vote.
However, while the bill advanced by a two-to-one margin, some who voted in favor of it still had hesitations on giving final approval to the bill. Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, said he was personally against legalization, but given the “hundreds” of emails from his constituents on the topic, he wanted to have the discussion among the entire House.
“I’ll vote to move it forward, but I will most likely be a ‘no’ on the floor,” Crago said.
His stance was similar to Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, who said she was interested in bringing an amendment that would require Wyoming counties to opt into having marijuana establishments, rather than the opt-out provision in the current bill.
“I’m not sure we’re quite ready for it, but I guess at this point, I’ll join Representative Crago and say maybe the community is interested enough in this to move it forward and let the constituents talk to their representatives and let us take this to the floor,” Oakley said.
The votes against House Bill 209 came from Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell; Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody; and Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper. Votes in favor of the legislation came from Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne; Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson; and Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, along with Olsen, Crago and Oakley.
With the 6-3 vote by the committee, House Bill 209 will receive a hearing on the House floor sometime in the coming weeks of the Legislature’s session, which concludes April 2.