A spate of bills that would loosen the prohibition on marijuana in Wyoming will be introduced in the 2016 legislative session, which supporters say signals a growing acceptance of the drug.
Many of those bills, however, are similar to measures introduced in previous legislative sessions and failed in an unusual divide in which tea party libertarians and Democrats voted in favor of the measures and the mainstream GOP majority voted in opposition.
A University of Wyoming poll last year showed 72 percent of the state’s residents supported medical marijuana. Sixty percent of Wyomingites surveyed said they opposed marijuana for recreational use.
During the 2016 session, which begins Feb. 8 and is expected to last about four weeks, lawmakers prioritize crafting a two-year budget for the state. Legislative rules during budget sessions require bills receive a two-thirds vote to clear introduction, before being sent to a committee for further consideration -- a higher threshold than in general sessions.
Rep. Jim Byrd, D-Cheyenne, said he will sponsor a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Previously, his bill decriminalized marijuana by imposing civil fines on people caught with up to an ounce of pot. Byrd said this year he may lower the amount that would be decriminalized.
“I’m thinking that 1 ounce is quite a bit of pot,” he said. “Not being in the marijuana industry, I’m going to have to make a trip down to a dispensary and see what 1 ounce is.”
In January, Byrd’s bill was discussed in the House Judiciary Committee. Byrd proposed a fine of $50 for possessing up to a half ounce of marijuana and $100 for up to an ounce. Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, along with other conservatives on the committee increased to those fines to $250 and $500 respectively, and the bill passed -- with five Republicans and two Democrats voting in favor. Two Republicans voted against the bill.
On the House floor, however, the bill failed.
Byrd is also planning to sponsor a medical marijuana reciprocity bill. Out-of-state residents traveling through Wyoming would not be arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana if they had a valid medical card in their state of residence.
Colorado and Montana allow medical marijuana and Byrd said he has received emails from travelers who have been arrested for possession in Wyoming.
“It would only behoove us to give reciprocity,” Byrd said. “We do the same for conceal and carry permits on your guns from Missouri or Texas, and we have no problem standing behind that.”
Ban the Box
Byrd also plans to sponsor a bill that would make it illegal to ask on job applications whether a person has been convicted of a crime. His bill would be part of a nationwide effort called the Ban the Box campaign, he said.
The bill would deny asking about convictions of all crimes. People are often automatically disqualified from jobs when they check the box, Byrd said.
It’s related to marijuana because people who have been convicted of possession of a small amount of pot can get rejected for jobs for the rest of their lives, even after serving time behind bars, he said.
“There may be circumstances that the individual needs to discuss with the employer,” he said. “It doesn’t preclude the employer from asking the question in an interview, but it does preclude the prospective employer from asking that on the job application."
CBD for pain
Rep. Gerald Gay, R-Casper, said he will reintroduce his bill that would allow cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component of marijuana, to be used in medicine. Cannabidiol is sometimes used to make painkillers, he said.
Last year the Legislature approved a different bill that allowed CBD from the industrial hemp plant to be used to treat seizures under a doctor’s care. Gay co-sponsored that bill.
Last year’s bill limited the amount of the psychoactive THC to less than 5 percent of the drug’s weight.
“Science has brought us to the point where they can separate out the therapeutic agents from the hallucinogenic or intoxicating agents of marijuana,” he said.
If his CBD bill fails, Gay wants to introduce what he calls a plan B bill, which would redefine the definition of marijuana in state statute to allow CBD.
“What we’ll do is put cannabidiol in extract form as one of the things that is not marijuana,” he said.
Gay believes the tide is changing on marijuana.
“Now people are coming at me with a libertarian sort of approach (saying) ‘There’s nothing wrong with it. Why can’t we have it?’”
Marcia Stuelpnagel, of Wyoming Cannabis Activists, said personal stories have changed policymakers’ attitudes about marijuana. She was a cancer patient and has benefited from medical marijuana, she said.
“I also have PTSD and am bipolar,” she said. “When I talk to legislators about my situation, then they start being more open-minded about medical marijuana.”
The Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is hoping to get a measure on the ballot in 2016 that would legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp. Wyoming Cannabis Activists are keeping an eye on bills before the Legislature. If they don’t see much movement, they will try to get a separate ballot measure in 2018, Stuelpnagel said.
However, Byron Oedekoven, of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, which opposes changing marijuana laws, noted the majority of the Legislature opposes any kind of legalization.
“We’ve discussed these before,” he said. “We’ve had the discussion in the Legislature. They did not pass last time. We will continue our education on marijuana issues. Some of it will certainly be germane to this discussion.”
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock.