Wyoming legislators are set to once again consider rewriting laws dealing with marijuana extracts, concentrates and edibles, but experts — from law enforcement to advocates — say the bills still need work.
This year’s legislation aims to once again close a loophole in marijuana laws that has on at least two occasions induced judges to throw out drug cases involving the non-plant forms of the drug. Because Wyoming statute defines marijuana as a plant, other forms are not directly addressed by state law.
The Joint Judiciary Committee has sponsored two bills that aim to close that loophole. If either of the two bills receives an introductory vote of two-thirds in its respective chamber, the Legislature will consider the issue for the fourth straight year.
Neither bill is perfect, however, according to experts in the field.
At the heart of the issue is an inability to test for the concentration of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — in edibles, making legislators, prosecutors and lab technicians unsure of exactly how potent a given THC-laced gummy bear is.
As a result, legislators are left trying to approximate at what quantity non-plant THC products become equivalent to three ounces of marijuana in the plant form. At that point, possession would become a felony and allow for prison time.
Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen said the bills were crafted with equivalency between THC amounts in mind. That becomes difficult, however, without an effective way to test for the concentration of THC, he said. Due to legalization in neighboring states, new THC-based products are introduced frequently, complicating any attempt to regulate their possession.
“The most important thing is that we have some sort of fact-based or evidence-based equivalency,” Blonigen said.
The Senate bill demonstrates the difficulty: possessing marijuana-derived products “commercially packaged as a drinkable liquid in a jurisdiction where such commerce is legal,” would be a felony offense for any amount greater than 36 ounces. Meanwhile, possessing other liquid forms of marijuana would become a felony once a threshold of 3/10 of a gram was breached.
Three grams of marijuana-derived resin would be the breaking point between misdemeanor and felony possession, while three ounces of plant and other forms would be the felony cutoff.
The 36-ounce figure was chosen when legislators decided they had to choose a hard-and-fast number, Rep. Dan Kirkbride, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said. Although 36 ounces of liquid marijuana could contain more than 100 personal doses, he said legislators erred on the side of caution because they didn’t want to create overly harsh prison sentences.
The House bill takes a different tack: “a preparation, compound, mixture or substance not in plant form which contains marihuana or (THC) intended for consumption, other than by smoking, including baked goods, candies, edibles, ointments, potable liquids, tinctures or any other similar form containing marijuana or (THC)” would be weighed in total, including the weight of brownie mix or whatever other carrier the THC appears in. At three ounces, those possession of those products would become a felony.
Although the House bill would close a loophole, it wouldn’t as closely address the varying concentrations of THC in marijuana products.
“There are problems with both bills,” Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, said. He wants to see legislators rewrite drug laws to define marijuana products as those including THC, regardless of form. He said the Legislature also needs to look at laws governing other drugs. Most of the state drug statutes were written in the 1970s and don’t directly address many forms of drugs that have become popular since, he said.
Legislators are focused on the wrong issue entirely, said Sabrina King, the Wyoming ACLU’s policy director. Instead of asking, “How do we criminalize edibles?”, legislators should look to decriminalize the drug and focus on enforcing trafficking laws more closely, she said.
King said decriminalization would be supported by Wyomingites and help ease pressures on an overburdened prison system.
A 2016 phone survey of 722 Wyoming residents found that 81 percent supported medical marijuana though only 41 percent supported “personal use” of the drug.
As for how the two 2018 bills would fare, Kirkbride said he’s unsure if either bill will earn passage, but cited strong support among members of the Joint Judiciary Committee and last year’s close defeat.
If neither bill passes this year, his committee won’t walk away from the issue, Kirkbride said. It’ll be back next year.
Orange light dripped over the southern ridges of the Wind River Range as 11 Casper students finished setting up their camp in the sagebrush wilderness outside South Pass City.
There is a relief, always, to see the sun go down at the end of a day tromping outdoors — it means it is time to rest. Despite the grit, the August heat and the ever-present wind, the students were happy, peaceful even. They had one day left in their 40-mile hike along the pioneer trails between Sweetwater Junction and South Pass City.
They made pies of dried apples. They sorted beans for the next morning’s breakfast. They unrolled the long tarps that would become their tipi-shaped shelter for the night. For many of the kids, this venture was their first time they spent the night outdoors.
“The stars, the coyotes — they had never experienced it,” said Jason Vlcan, one of the interpreters at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center who led the trip.
Since 2011, staff at the center, who work for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, have led the three-day trek in Fremont County for a group of Casper students. Some of the participants are “at-risk” students from Roosevelt High School while others are volunteers with the center’s student docent program for grades five through 12. For three days, the students walk and ride in wagons along the historic trails while learning about the area’s history. The pioneers’ hardships become more real as the students cross the Sweetwater River and clamor up the same rocky ridges.
The group’s 2017 trip is now the focus of an exhibit at the trails center, “Scratching the Surface.” Throughout the three-day journey, the students and their adult supervisors took photos and recorded their thoughts in journals. Those photos and excerpts from the diaries now line walls in one of the center’s exhibit room.
The photos record small moments from the trip: holding a tiny horny toad, tossing beans toward the dusk sky in celebration, the horses who pulled the wagon grazing in golden light, the long line of students trekking down a red-dirt road.
“I also hope to discover something about myself on the trek,” one featured quote from 12-year-old Alexis Worthen reads. “I wonder if I shall discover that I have as much strength and spirit as the Mormon pioneers, or perhaps as much courage as the pioneers on the Oregon trail, to leave their homes for a place that they knew nothing about.”
Worthen first heard about the trek as a volunteer with the docent program.
“It sounded like a very big, grand adventure,” she said. She had to go.
The trip was much easier than she expected, and she had a lot more fun as well. At the end of the three days, she was excited to take a shower and chow down on some pizza but was sad the adventure had ended.
Worthen and other students who went on the trip organized the exhibit: choosing a select few photos out of hundreds, hanging the frames, lining up the words for the quotes on the wall.
Reminiscing over the adventure helped cement some of the lessons of the hike.
“It was fascinating experiencing the pioneer’s viewpoint — way better than just reading about it,” Worthen said.
Elk, pronghorn or mule deer could be coming to Wyoming license plates if lawmakers pass a bill creating a “wildlife conservation” plate that would help reduce car crashes involving wild animals in the state.
The plate would be optional and cost interested motorists a $100 one-time fee with funds going toward overpasses, underpasses, fencing and signage to prevent vehicle-animal collisions along wildlife migration corridors.
“It’s not just about saving wildlife,” the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, said. “It’s about human lives.”
The Wyoming Department of Transportation held a summit last April to examine ways of reducing animal-related collisions, which director Bill Panos said at the time accounted for one in 15 fatal crashes in the state, according to KGAB.
Blake said he was approached by several sportsmen and wildlife groups following that spring summit with the idea of creating the new plate.
Joshua Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said his group was one of those to approach Blake. Coursey said the cost of crashes caused by animals in Wyoming totaled in the millions when taking into account the number of collisions, the value of the animals killed and the property damage caused to vehicles.
Coursey said there were 2,874 such collisions in 2016 with average property damage of $4,000 according to an estimate by State Farm. Coupled with Wyoming Game and Fish estimates for the value of animals killed — ranging from $3,000 per pronghorn to $6,000 per elk — that combines for a hefty annual cost.
The Legislature has been hesitant to create new license plates in the state. A bill last year to create a Yellowstone-themed license plate was easily defeated. But Blake said he thinks the wildlife license plate measure stands a shot at passing during the budget session that starts in February this year.
“The sportsmen groups — they’re really gung-ho,” Blake said.
The Muley Fanatics website displays a sample of the prospective license plate and has an area for individuals to commit to buying the plate were the bill to pass. Since that feature went live on Wednesday over 900 people have signed-up, Coursey said.
The website displays one possible version of the license plate that Coursey said was created by WYDOT and shared with Muley Fanatics. The plate shows a mule deer in the snow with the Bucking Horse and Rider image, “WC” letter and room for four numbers. “Support wildlife,” is printed along the bottom of the plate.
But Coursey said WYDOT had other plate samples that featured pronghorn and elk and that the plate’s imagery would rotate every five years, providing the opportunity for many different animals to be shown over time.
In addition to the $100 fee for the conservation plate, motorists would also pay a $30 fee applied to any speciality license plate order.
The Legislative Service Office estimates the bill would generate $50,000 for WYDOT wildlife conservation efforts over the next three years along with $15,000 for the highway fund through the speciality plate fee. The formula used assumes 1,000 conservation plates will be issued between 2019 and 2023 at a rate of 200 per year.
Creating the new plate will require $6,500 in one-time costs for WYDOT.
Coursey said protecting migration corridors for Wyoming’s wildlife is essential for the animals to find reliable sources of food.
“Critters aren’t moving and migrating because they want to see what’s on the other side of the road,” he said.
The new license plate, Coursey said, would be one way that state residents could contribute to keeping those corridors safe for animals.