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A bill sponsored by a Cheyenne Democrat would reduce the sentence for someone caught with up to an ounce of marijuana.

House Bill 49, sponsored by Rep. James Byrd, would alter the state’s possession statutes to make an exemption for marijuana. Someone caught with up to a half ounce of pot would be subject to a civil penalty of $50, the bill states. If they had a half ounce to an ounce, they would be fined $100.

“That’s the same thing as a civil ticket, like speeding through a construction zone,” Byrd said.

Current state law says a person found in possession of marijuana can be convicted of a misdemeanor, facing 12 months behind bars and a fine of $1,000. After a third conviction, a person faces a five-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine.

“We fill up our jails with young people,” Byrd said. “We set all sorts of traps for young people. Look at the arrest rates for young people. Look at the arrests for marijuana. We ruin lives.”

Byrd said courts and jails are being choked by people who are caught with small amounts of marijuana. Police officers spend four to six hours booking a suspect -- time that should be spent patrolling for crimes that are more of a danger to society, he said.

“I talked to a couple law enforcement officials,” he said. “The only thing it does is take their law enforcement people off the street for what they consider a lesser offense. They’re not going to come out and publicly state this and I’m not going to state who in law enforcement I had the discussions with. They look at it as tying up their resources.”

But Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police and former Campbell County sheriff, said most of the time, officers write people in possession of pot a ticket and send them on their way, which takes just minutes.

Oedekoven’s organization hasn’t yet looked at the bill, but he thinks members will oppose it.

“Decriminalization is usually the first step on the path to legalization,” he said.

The association opposes legalization, he said.

“Most communities take marijuana very seriously,” he said. “Most people (who obtain pot) participated in a felony: They brought drugs in from Mexico.”

Byrd believes more Wyomingites will be arrested for marijuana possession because it’s now legal in Colorado. He envisions scenarios in which young Wyoming people party in Colorado, and a month later, one is arrested because a marijuana cigarette that belonged to a friend was put out in his or her car ashtray.

Byrd doesn’t believe his bill would encourage Wyomingites to travel to Colorado for pot, because they’re already traveling there, he said.

Byrd's is not the only legislation addressing marijuana.

Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, said she intends to sponsor a bill that would allow marijuana for medicinal use. Additionally, there is a petition underway to legalize medical and recreational marijuana through an initiative on the 2016 ballot.

The Wyoming Legislature's 2014 session begins Feb. 10.

Byrd is sponsoring other bills, too.

Minimum wage

HB45, which is cosponsored by Sen. Floyd Esquibel, D-Laramie, would increase the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour.

The state’s minimum wage currently is $5.15 an hour but few, if any, employers pay that. If a company engages in interstate commerce, it must pay the federal rate of $7.20 an hour.

Byrd said $9 an hour is still not a living wage in Wyoming. Workers would not be able to feed themselves and pay rent and utilities in Wyoming on $9 an hour. But an increase to $9 is better than nothing. It will get conservative lawmakers thinking, Byrd said.

“The reality is the $9 figure is also gauging the temperature of the political waters,” he said. “If I want to raise the minimum wage, where can I go and have people give me consideration? And $9 is the threshold. If I go much higher, the ‘no’ votes will stack up.”

The bill would increase the wages of tipped employees from $2.13 an hour to $5 an hour. Byrd said the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association has said members will oppose the bill. The association did not return a message from the Star-Tribune.

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Collection of unpaid wages

HB57 would repeal a law passed by the Legislature last year that would allow employers to not have to pay vacation time if an employee quits or gets fired -- if companies have such a policy and their employees sign a contract stating they understand it.

Last year’s bill was unfair to workers, Byrd said, and his bill tips the balance back, making the relationship between employees and employers more fair.

Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, sponsored last year’s bill. Byrd’s bill could interfere with many companies’ policies that were adopted according to the new law. That would hurt workers, he said.

Parents of the habitually truant

HB58 would strike from current law a provision that allows police officers to arrest parents of children who are habitually truant.

“I think as a society, we should have evolved beyond throwing the parents in jail,” Byrd said. “That does no good in getting the kid to school.”

Byrd had his own habitually truant son. He recalled driving his son to the front door of the school. His son would walk through door and march out of the back door of the school and play hooky, he said.

Byrd threatened to physically escort his son around school, one time even exiting his car to walk his son to his first-period class. Byrd’s son shrieked at the embarrassment of everyone seeing his dad by his side, and reformed his truant ways, Byrd said.

Byrd said many parents have working schedules that prohibit them from spending their days inside Wyoming high schools, making sure their kids get to class.

“If he would have called me out on that and challenged me on that, I would have come through,” Byrd said of his son. “But there are not a lot of parents who can do that.”

That doesn’t let parents off the hook for unruly children, Byrd said.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services has plenty of authority to get involved when a child runs wild, he said.

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Reach state reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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