Thirty years ago, before he moved to Wyoming and became a Republican state lawmaker, Bruce Burns‘ mother asked him to come to Long Island, N.Y., with pot.
Burns’ uncle, a Jesuit priest who lived most of his life as a missionary in India, was dying of lung cancer.
Burns was a dutiful son. He delivered the goods. His uncle’s mood and appetite improved. The priest gained 15 pounds and was more comfortable when he died. Burns, now a state senator from Sheridan, became a believer in the medical benefits of marijuana.
Over the weekend, the weed blogosphere lit up on news of Burns’ personal story and his belief that marijuana should be legal in the Cowboy State for medical purposes. Burns shared his story with a Sheridan radio station last week.
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“Kudos to Senator Bruce Burns,” wrote Oregon marijuana activist “Johnny Green” on his Weed Blog. “I know it’s not easy going on the record in Wyoming supporting medical marijuana.”
“Burns’ view is increasingly common — a poll last June found that 60 percent of Americans favor allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana,” the left-leaning Think Progress blog said.
Burns’ comments also comes at a time when another lawmaker, Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, says she will sponsor a bill on legalization of marijuana for medical use.
Burns told the Star-Tribune on Monday he was living in Colorado when his mother asked him to travel to New York with marijuana. It was illegal at the time. Burns declined to share details, such as whether he flew or drove with the weed.
“Let’s just say the statute of limitations has passed,” said Burns, who said he does not smoke pot.
In those days, chemotherapy was rougher than it is today, Burns said.
But Burns doesn’t think medical marijuana in Wyoming should be limited to terminal illness.
“I know there are a number of maladies that it treats,” he said. “One I’ve heard of is glaucoma.”
Burns believes that marijuana should be prescribed by a physician to a patient. Patients should get the prescriptions filled at pharmacies like pain killers, penicillin and other drugs.
“If a doctor can use it as a tool in treating a patient, I don’t know why the federal government gets involved,” he said.
There are ways to make sure medical marijuana prescriptions aren’t abused. Physicians’ prescriptions can be reviewed by licensing authorities, he said.
A decade ago
In 2003, when Burns was a freshman on the state Senate Judiciary Committee, he voted in favor of a medical marijuana bill that was sponsored by another senator, Keith Goodenough.
Goodenough, now a Casper city councilman, said his bill mimicked a medical marijuana law in Colorado.
“You had to get a recommendation from a doctor,” Goodenough said. “Then you got a permit, I think it was through the Department of Health. And you had to register through the county sheriff. And then you or your caregiver could grow a limited amount, I believe it was six plants.”
Goodenough said that while the bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, it never got to the Senate floor.
“The leadership of the majority (party) wouldn’t allow it to be discussed,” said Goodenough, then a Democrat and now an independent.
However, attitudes toward marijuana are changing in Wyoming and elsewhere, Goodenough said.
Burns thinks Cowboy State legislators will keep a close eye on pot legalization in Colorado before making up their minds about what to do in Wyoming, “when in fact we should be watching Montana,” he said, which has legalized medical marijuana.
Wallis said she is happy that Burns favors medical marijuana.
“He is my favorite guy and I was going to take the draft” of the medical marijuana bill to him and ask him to cosponsor it, she said.
Burns told the Star-Tribune he hasn’t yet taken a position on Wallis’ bill because he hasn’t seen it. Wallis said the legislative staff has given her several drafts of the bill, and she is awaiting a final draft.
“I’m waiting on the last changes that I asked for after I went down to Colorado and met with stakeholders and different aspects of the industry down there,” she said. “I learned quite a bit.”
Wallis, too, has personal experience with medical marijuana. Her husband, Rod McQueary, took it as he was dying in a Denver hospital in December 2012. Wallis’ children legally bought candies that each had 10 milligrams of THC, the mind-altering ingredient in the cannabis plant. McQueary ate three candies at day, Wallis said.
“Even in a noisy ICU hospital room, he was able to sleep and get rest,” she said. “And that was always the issue with him because of his chronic pain.”
He died from complications that likely stemmed from a horse accident and were made worse by prescription painkillers, Wallis said.
A local group representing the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws had said it will organize a petition drive to legalize pot for medicinal and recreational purposes. The NORML activists hope to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot.
Jackson resident Christine Christian, who is working on the NORML petition, did not return a message from the Star-Tribune. Kai Schon, who works for the Wyoming Secretary of State Elections office, said he hasn’t seen any paperwork from NORML. For initiatives, the Secretary of State’s Office creates the official petition forms that activists use.
Charlie Lake of Weed Wyoming said his group’s efforts for a 2016 initiative for medical marijuana has been discontinued. The organization didn’t come up with the money to file the petition with the Secretary of State’s Office. Instead, it is supporting the NORML effort and Wallis’ proposed bill, which he said faces a challenge this year. During a budget session of the Wyoming Legislature, bills need two-thirds of a vote for introduction and committee assignment.
“I’m not saying it’s not a challenge,” Lake said. “Bottom line is, most people know somebody in their family or close circle who suffers from cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic pain and on and on that benefits greatly in all these other states with medical marijuana laws.”