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House committee advances marijuana legalization bill
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House committee advances marijuana legalization bill

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Olsen

House Majority Whip Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, stands and applauds a colleague’s speech March 1 during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature inside the state Capitol. Olsen is sponsoring a bill to legalize marijuana in Wyoming. 

Marijuana legalization in Wyoming passed its first hurdle in the Legislature on Friday, after a 6-3 vote in support of a bill in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 209, sponsored by committee chairman Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, will now head to the House floor for debate.

Reps. Dan Laursen, R-Powell; Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody; and Art Washut, R-Casper, voted against the bill. Reps. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, and Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, voted to send the discussion to the House, but said their committee vote won’t necessarily translate to a yes vote there.

Another bill that would allocate funds to study the potential implementation of medical marijuana in Wyoming, sponsored by Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, was discussed at the same time by the committee. No motion was taken on that bill Friday.

Wyoming is one of six states where marijuana use and possession remain entirely illegal.

Committee members heard four hours of comment from stakeholders and members of the public, covering marijuana’s positive medicinal uses, the potential for abuse and addiction and the projected economic benefits of legalization.

“I’ve never used marijuana in my life, I have no intention of using marijuana in my life, I’m not a marijuana advocate,” Olsen said Friday.

But he said the state still needs to move on this legislation to avoid being subject to either a federal decision on marijuana or a citizen initiative down the line.

In presenting the bill, Olsen said Wyoming would stand to see over $50 million in tax revenue in the first year of legalizing THC products. More than $30 million of that could go to funding schools, which are scrambling to find reliable revenue sources. Utah cannabis advocate Justin Arriola said in 2020 that Colorado — whose population is roughly 10 times Wyoming’s — generated $244 million in revenue from THC products in 2020.

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Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, said it comes down to a matter of freedom of choice. He talked about a friend with multiple sclerosis whose life and movement was helped tremendously by marijuana and said that now, Wyomingites looking to buy legal weed are dumping money into Colorado.

“We have an opportunity to put money in our state’s pockets,” Brown said. “If you want to smoke, go smoke. Just leave me alone with it.”

Legalization would allow Wyoming to regulate marijuana, either at the state or local level, taking away some of the risk that comes with buying on the black market. Jim Gray, a retired California judge, testified that taxes on retail weed should be kept low enough to keep people buying legally.

“Quality control is a huge, huge issue,” Gray said. “The term ‘controlled substance’ is the biggest oxymoron in our world today, because as soon as you prohibit a substance you give up all of your controls to the bad guys.”

Former Gillette Mayor and state Rep. Frank Latta said doctors also told him marijuana would help with pain from his MS, which he’s been living with for decades. But because it’s illegal, they instead prescribed him the opioid clonazepam. They warned he could become addicted — and he did.

“The withdrawal symptoms I went through for two to three weeks,” Latta said, “not sleeping or not eating, because I was addicted to heroin, because I could not buy a simple plant that would do the same thing.”

Others in favor of the bill included former Rhode Island governor and presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee, California medical cannabis expert Dr. David Bearman, and Teton County Libertarian Party Chair Zach Padilla, who was charged with felony possession of marijuana in 2018.

Those against, including Brett Moline of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and representatives from the Wyoming Medical Society, cited marijuana’s continued criminalization at the federal level, the difficulty of regulating dosages and high costs associated with the necessary infrastructure.

Some, including Susan Gore of Lander and Cheyenne, said it also poses dangers to developing brains and those who start using THC products at a young age can develop addictions more easily. According to Olsen’s bill, marijuana would only be legal for purchase for those over 21, and it would outlaw packaging or advertising THC products to target younger customers.

Arriola said while users can become dependent, the risk of overdose or death is almost nonexistent with marijuana, and even withdrawal is minor — in fact, the drug is sometimes used to treat addiction.

The discussion now moves to the House floor, where the bill will be debated and may be amended further.

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