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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Jessie Bell paints an illustration for a children's book at her kitchen table Thursday morning, Jan, 24, 2019.

A new bill would allow medical marijuana in Wyoming. But is the Cowboy State ready for legalization?

CHEYENNE – A bill with the backing of a number of prominent lawmakers seeks to legalize the use of medical marijuana in Wyoming, though members of the medical community have expressed skepticism with the measure.

Sponsored by House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, House Bill 278 would create an extensive set of guidelines for the use and distribution of medical grade cannabis in Wyoming, covering everything from permissible THC content (the psychoactive compound that gets you “high”) to the agency responsible for testing and regulating marijuana.

“This is a request I’ve had from multiple constituents and other folks across the state,” said Barlow. “We just don’t have a big conversation about it in Wyoming.”

If passed, Wyoming would join a majority of states across the country with some form of marijuana legalization in place.

Controlled system

The bill does not provide a wholesale legalization of medical marijuana but rather, a tightly regulated system for the substance’s distribution and control. Penalties for violating the law would range from a $750 fine for negligent infractions to prosecuting defendants as if they were producers or consumers of recreational marijuana.

Similar to a bill regulating hemp that Barlow signed onto last week, all marijuana tagged for medicinal use would be tested and regulated by the state Department of Agriculture and would be limited to a maximum THC content of 15 percent.

It’s unclear how common such a cap is. Iowa has placed a THC cap of 3 percent on medicinal products there. Frank Latta, the director of Wyoming’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the cap was “not the norm” and that it was an attempt to win over lawmakers who may be hesitant about supporting the measure.

Barlow said the upper limit for THC content was decided upon after conversations with producers of medical-grade cannabis in other states, who base their mixture on ratios of THC and CBD, another chemical component of marijuana that does not cause a high on its own. The higher the THC level, Barlow said, the lower the CBD level, making a moderate THC content the most ideal strain of marijuana for medical use.

“The closer the THC and CBD level are, the more therapeutic or medicinal it is,” said Barlow. “We’re not trying to give folks ‘the highs,’ we’re trying to give them the health benefits.”

“I’m not advocating for recreational marijuana,” he said. “If the number is too low or too high, we can have that discussion. Maybe it is [an arbitrary number], but I’m trying to get away from giving people a recreational effect, rather than a medicinal effect.”

Under the bill, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture would also be responsible for the licensing of medical marijuana providers in a process that, unlike the “golden ticket” type licensing programs employed – and exploited – in places like New York, will offer one-year licenses to any producer that can meet state standards. These include record keeping and subjecting their crop to regular, state-administered testing.

The system proposed under the bill would be a direct-to-consumer model, with no middle men or distribution plan involved beyond producers keeping records of who receives the cannabis and where it goes. This, said Barlow, was done in order to keep the distribution model for Wyoming simpler than those seen in other states.

“I purposefully avoided the ‘golden ticket,’ because then it’s a concentrated type thing,” said Barlow. “Really, we’re trying to get health care to individuals in communities, so why wouldn’t you want to get multiple potential producers in communities to compete on the free market?”

“I wanted to simplify this as much as possible and give people access to medical cannabis who needed it, and to provide a source that couldn’t be monopolized,” he added.

The legislation also has restrictions around who can receive a prescription for medical marijuana, limiting doctor-issued scripts to Wyoming residents over 18 years of age or with the endorsement of a parent or guardian, with a “medically indicated recommendation” from their doctor.

Public opinion

About 70 percent of Wyomingites would support a bill legalizing medical marijuana, according to an October poll from the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming.

However, state lawmakers have long been opposed to such a move and have been reluctant to pursue any legislation that could potentially be in conflict with cannabis’ federal status as a Schedule I controlled substance. Legislators last week rejected a bill to legalize legalize cannabidiol products that are often used for medical purposes.

In the executive branch, Gov. Mark Gordon maintained on the campaign trail in 2018 that he was open to conversations about medical marijuana but did not support it, saying there were other, pharmaceutical-based options already available.

Latta, the director of the state marijuana advocacy group, said he supported the measure and its efforts to give patients a different choice in treatment. But he acknowledged its success was a tall order.

“I think it’s got a rough road to hoe in the Legislature, in that even if 90 percent of the legislators are Republican and they want to say that they give really a lot of credence to individual freedoms, that has to be a specific freedom, it’s not just all freedoms.”

The medical community was less enthusiastic. Kevin Bohnenblust, the executive director of the Wyoming Board of Medicine, said his group didn’t have a position yet and hadn’t taken one on similar legislation in the 12 years he’s been in with the organization. But he said physicians had expressed concern about the lack of evidence-based medicinal uses of marijuana.

Dr. David Wheeler, a Casper neurologist and the vice president of the Wyoming Medical Society, said he personally opposed the bill, as did his organization. He echoed Bohnenblust’s concerns about the lack of research into effective uses of marijuana.

“From my perspective and from most physicians’ perspectives, it doesn’t make very much sense to ask physicians or to require physicians to play a role in deciding whether or not an individual should use marijuana for whatever purpose they see fit,” he said. “Marijuana doesn’t meet any of the basic criteria for calling it medication. It’s not dispensed in a uniform fashion, doses are unknown, side effects unknown.”

Wheeler stressed that he wasn’t opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana or personal use of marijuana. But he said those issues are not at their heart medical questions, and he said he was personally bothered by attempts by some marijuana advocacy groups to use medical cannabis as a stepping stone to full legalization or decriminalization.

As for the 15 percent THC limit proposed in the bill, Wheeler said the cap wasn’t a medical determination but was something to “increase the comfort level of people who are opposed.”

He said there was little research to guide physicians in terms of the uses of medical marijuana, including for what diseases it should be used and in what dosages. A May 2018 report by the Minnesota Department of Health came to a similar conclusion.

“There are relatively few clinical trials, especially large clinical trials that can produce the most definitive results,” the report’s authors wrote. “In recent years the number of trials has increased to some degree, perhaps reflecting the commercialization of medical cannabis products around the world over the past few decades.”

The medical society previously opposed an effort to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, citing the same concerns Wheeler expressed.

‘Starting a conversation’

Barlow has no illusions that the legislation will actually become law this year. With several days left for bills to leave committee, it’s uncertain whether or not the medical marijuana legislation will even receive an assignment. Notably, the bill lacks a number of provisions necessary to implement a viable medicinal marijuana program.

However, Barlow said the topic has never been seriously visited by the Legislature and, given Wyoming’s status as one of a minority of states that have not legalized medicinal marijuana, he believes it’s time for the discussion.

“I’m not naive about the prospects,” he said. “But I do believe — I’ve been in the Legislature for six years — and we’ve never had a conversation about medical marijuana, and we have states all around us who have put medical marijuana in statute.”

“We’re certainly in the minority now in Wyoming,” he said.

Bill would require Wyoming voters to present photo I.D. at the polls

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming House of Representatives will debate a bill that would require voters to present photo identification at the polls.

Sponsored by Casper Republican Chuck Gray, House Bill 192 seeks to prevent voter fraud in Wyoming. The bill passed a legislative committee Tuesday, even after a representative from the Secretary of State’s office told lawmakers that she was unaware of any recent reported cases of voter fraud in Wyoming.

In addition to requiring identification to verify one’s identity at the polls, the legislation also grants authority to the secretary of state to set parameters for acceptable forms of photo ID, something not currently outlined in state statute.

Currently, 35 states require some form of photo ID to vote. Wyoming is not among them.

The bill passed the House Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions by a vote of 5-4. “No” votes included Rep. Danny Eyre, R-Lyman, Rep. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, Rep. Aaron Clausen, R-Douglas, and Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance. “Aye” votes included Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne, Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, and Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Torrington.

The bill itself – which amends current election code – is very brief, and adds onto existing bans on voters who are deemed “mentally incompetent” or have been convicted of a felony. While intended by the bill’s sponsor to guarantee citizenship, some of the bill’s critics – including groups like the Wyoming League of Women Voters and the Equality State Policy Center – argued that the legislation added an additional, unneeded layer to being allowed to vote.

The Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, though not endorsing the bill, said they supported the intent of the bill in rectifying requirements for voter registration with what is required to vote, and supported visiting the topic in the interim.

Those speaking in favor of the bill, however, stated that voter fraud was possible in Wyoming. One individual said that on one occasion, he was denied the right to vote because his son – who lived in the same precinct and had a similar name – had already voted before him. Another woman cited misleading statistics that have circulated in conservative media circles – and been spread by President Donald Trump on Twitter – of illegal immigrants voting in Texas, which the state’s election division has quietly been walking back in recent days.

Gray, responding to questions of whether or not voter fraud was even an issue in Wyoming, said it was a circular argument, and there was no other way to verify the integrity of the state’s elections.

“If you don’t have voter ID, how are you going to know it’s occurring?” he asked.

Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, argued that the state already has a strict enough process for voter registration, and if there were issues at the polling place, the state’s statutes around provisional voting – which sets rules for voters whose registration status is uncertain – are already sufficient. Chris Merrill, a representative for the Equality State Policy Center, said that voter ID laws tend to target the state’s poorest and the elderly, who may have difficult obtaining state or federally-issued identification like a driver’s license, or a tribal identification card.

In an email, Merrill noted that citizens need a birth certificate or other proof of identity to get a photo ID in Wyoming, as well as two documents proving current residence, including a document with one’s social security number and, if applicable, a proof of name change.

These requirements, he said, already create problems, mainly impacting minorities like Native Americans, Latinos who are US citizens, and the poor.

“Some elderly never had a birth certificate, and others do have one but their name was entered incorrectly,” he said. “In most counties, the driver’s license facility is only open a few days a week. Or in Dubois—only one day a month.

“A Wyoming driver’s license or ID is $40,” he added. “A tribal ID (assuming that would be acceptable) costs $20. Should a citizen have to buy an ID to be able to vote?”

Casper City Council announces it will amend animal ordinance, table alcohol rule changes

The Casper City Council announced at Tuesday night’s work session that it plans to change a proposed animal ordinance and table new rules on the serving of alcohol, both of which passed the first round of voting last week.

The animal ordinance would require all pets in the city to be on leashes or enclosed, with the exception of at designated dog parks. As of last week’s meeting, that requirement would extend to pets on private property because of an amendment proposed by Councilmen Mike Huber and Chris Walsh.

Council members said Tuesday that while they cannot formally approve an amendment at a work session, they planned to do so to reverse Huber and Walsh’s amendment at next week’s meeting. The change would stipulate that pets can be loose on private property as long as they are under “direct supervision.”

Councilman Kenneth Bates objected to the amendment last week, saying he thought he had the right to sit on his private property with his unleashed pet.

“If he goes off my property, sure he is a nuisance and sure he could be considered at large,” Bates said. “I have no problem with that. But if he is sitting there behaving (on my property), I don’t see him needing to be tethered or me needing to build a fence.”

The alcohol ordinance, which Vice Mayor Shawn Johnson and Councilwoman Khrystyn Lutz opposed last week, would make it illegal to serve alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated, regardless of whether the location was a bar, restaurant or private residence. The Council said Tuesday it planned to table the ordinance for a month.

The Council said it was not completely axing the ordinance, however. The members wanted to have more time to discuss the proposal at a future work session.

Each proposal would need to pass three rounds of voting to take effect.

Softball players, coaches ask Natrona County school board to consider adding the sport

Roughly 20 softball players, coaches and parents filled a Natrona County school board meeting Monday night and asked that the members support an effort to sanction the sport statewide.

“There is an inequality for girls where sports are concerned in Wyoming,” 14-year-old Casper Voltage player Kynlee Griffith told the board. “It’s called Title IX. I am young, but I do understand this. This is not only for the right to play and have equal sports for girls but also for the right to have opportunities that may grant scholarships and open paths for our future careers.”

The effort by softball supporters has been sweeping across the state for months as the community attempts to have the sport sanctioned for high school play. Players and coaches point to the fact that there are more sports available for boys here than girls after gymnastics was eliminated in 2010.

As a result of this push, a handful of school districts — those in Cody, Green River and Rock Springs — have signed a letter to support the effort, Casper Voltage coach Dallen Griffith told the board. He cited statistics — oft quoted by board members themselves — that show students are more likely to graduate if they’re involved in extra-curricular activities.

In order for softball to become a sanctioned sport by the Wyoming High School Activities Association, it would first have to receive school district approval for at least eight high schools.

WHSAA discussed the logistics of adding softball at a board of directors meeting in late September. In that meeting, the board revisited surveys sent out in March 2017 that sought to gauge interest in adding softball, which officials said did not show an overwhelming interest.

Currently, the WHSAA offers one more boys sport than girls. Title IX doesn’t specify a violation as equal sports offered to boys and girls, WSHAA officials said; instead a violation would occur if there’s not equal representation or opportunity given to female athletes.

Wyoming is currently one of just two states — along with South Dakota — that does not offer fast-pitch softball. Softball was the fourth-most popular girls sport by programs in the nation and fifth most in terms of participants for the 2017-18 academic year, according to survey results by the National Foundation for High Schools.

Griffith was followed by several players — one as young as 9 years old — who talked about the importance of softball. Many mentioned Title IX, a provision of a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

“(Softball) has made such a big impact in my life,” 13-year-old player Olivia Smith said. “I would love to play softball in high school.”

“All girls should have the opportunity to play,” another player told the board.

Rita Walsh, the board’s chairwoman, said staff were already looking into sanctioning softball. That determination would have to be made by the Wyoming High School Activities Association, which oversees secondary-level sports in the state.

There appeared to be support from the board. Before the meeting concluded, members take turns providing comment. Nearly all spoke in support of the community’s efforts.

“Your voices are heard and I think this is a cool idea,” trustee Clark Jensen said, adding that the large group that came to the meeting was a “big plus.”

“I don’t think it’s fair that girls have fewer sports, either,” added board member Debbie McCullar.

Troubled Wyoming coal firm speeds up bonuses it says will retain execs

Cloud Peak Energy executives won’t have to wait for bonuses from their troubled coal company.

The Wyoming firm, one of the state’s largest producers of coal, announced Tuesday that it was ditching gradually-paid retention plans agreed upon in November in favor of lump-sum payments to entice its executive team to stay.

Cloud Peak has rapidly become one of the most vulnerable large players in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The employer of nearly 1,000 workers at two Wyoming mines is currently at risk of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange for sustained low stock prices. One of its recent cost-cutting measures included ending retiree health benefits.

The Gillette-based firm has noted that it is considering multiple options for its future as it struggles to survive in what has become a gradually narrowing market for thermal coal in the United States. The company also carries significant debt.

In addition to an accelerated bonus schedule for executives, Cloud Peak announced Tuesday that it had hired new advisers to explore its options, including a potential sale. The financial advisers chosen by the company, FTI Consulting and investment bank Centerview Partners LLC, are both retained by Westmoreland, the bankrupt coal firm attempting to sell its western mines, including the Kemmerer mine in Wyoming.

A spokesman for Cloud Peak declined to comment on the executive bonuses.

Clark Williams-Derry, a financial adviser for the Sightline Institute – which advocates for a move away from fossil fuels — said Cloud Peak’s announcements Tuesday may signal that leadership doesn’t expect to exist long enough to collect the previous long-term retention bonuses. He was critical of the shifting of incomes toward management considering the company’s likely path.

“Here is a company that is probably going wind up stiffing its investors,” he said. “It’s going to do it’s best to divest itself of its legacy liabilities, while heaping money on the executives.”

The new payments for Cloud Peak executives replace long-term incentive plans and bonuses.

CEO Colin Marshall, for example, will receive a bonus of 150 percent his annual base salary. Chief Financial Officer Heath Hill, Chief Operating Officer Bruce Jones and the general counsel, Bryan Pechersky, will receive bonuses of 115 percent of their salary. Two other executives will receive bonuses equal to 100 percent of their base salary.

Cloud Peak owns the Cordero Rojo and Antelope mines in Wyoming as well as one coal operation in Montana. The Wyoming mines employed 959 people as of December.

Debt problems

Unlike other large players in Wyoming coal country, Cloud Peak did not file for bankruptcy during the coal downturn of 2015 and 2016. The firm had taken on less debt than some of its larger competitors like Arch Coal and Peabody Energy. It survived the downturn, but did not reap the benefit other players in the basin found by stripping away debt via bankruptcy.

Cloud Peak made a number of painful financial decisions, including refinancing and taking on high interest rates that stripped away cash flow. The company’s problems today, which exist against the backdrop of a troubled coal market, are rooted in taking on debt at high interest rates, Williams-Derry said.

“If you are in an ailing industry and you’ve got a lot of debt, there are only so many financial tricks that you can try,” he said.

Cloud Peak has kicked the can down the road until its run out of road, he said.

The difficult coal market has not escaped the notice of nervous Wyoming lawmakers. The industry is a bedrock for the state economy as well as local economies.

A bill currently proposed in the Legislature would cut coal company tax labilities due to the industry’s weakness and its importance in the state.