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Seeing green: Most Wyominigites support medical marijuana
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Seeing green: Most Wyominigites support medical marijuana

Legislature will consider at least three pot bills in upcoming session

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Wyomingites’ long-standing support for medical marijuana may move toward reality, as the Legislature will be alight in cannabis bills next month.

Three bills that would loosen Wyoming’s prohibition on the drug may go before lawmakers.

Meanwhile, a new University of Wyoming poll shows that a majority of Wyoming residents, 72 percent, continue to support adult use of marijuana if the drug is prescribed by a physician.

Twenty-five percent of Wyomingites oppose medical marijuana, according to the October poll, in which 768 residents were interviewed by phone.

Political observers said marijuana has been on the minds of Wyomingites since its legalization in Colorado and other states.

Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, believes medical marijuana will be legalized in Wyoming in his lifetime. Burns helped a dying uncle obtain marijuana decades ago and believes it can help patients with mood and appetite.

The Wyoming Legislature is overwhelmingly conservative. Of the lawmakers heading into the session, which begins Jan. 13, 86 percent are Republicans.

“Keep in mind that in addition to conservative, the Legislature tends toward libertarian, too,” Burns said. “This can be viewed through that prism. It would not surprise me to see some form of one of the bills pass.”

Wyomingites continue to oppose recreational use, however.

The poll found that only 35 percent support personal use of marijuana by adults, and 60 percent said they are opposed.

“Our 2000 poll showed 23 percent approving legalization of marijuana in general, so there has been a bit of a shift in public opinion on this aspect of the marijuana debate,” said Jim King, a UW political science professor who worked on the poll. “On the other hand, the 2000 and 2014 surveys have the same proportion of Wyoming residents, 72 percent, accepting medical marijuana use.”

The bills

Rep. Jim Byrd, D-Cheyenne, plans to sponsor a bill that would decriminalize 1 ounce of pot or less. Violators would face civil fines. Byrd said his goal is sentence reform.

Last session, Byrd sponsored a similar bill, which would have fined people $50 for up to a half ounce and $100 for amounts greater than a half ounce up to 1 ounce.

The bill failed because it did not receive enough votes on introduction to be assigned to a committee. Because lawmakers aren’t passing a budget next year, bills won't be required to have a vote for committee assignment.

Rep. Robert McKim, R-Afton, has filed paperwork to sponsor a bill that would legalize cannabidiol, known by the initials CBD, which can help some patients with epilepsy. CBD oil does not contain the psychoactive agents of the drug, McKim said.

McKim doesn’t describe the oil as a form of medical marijuana, which he said he opposes. He also opposes recreational use of marijuana.

About 200 people in Wyoming suffer from epilepsy, McKim said. The oil doesn’t work on everyone. But pharmaceutical drugs taken for seizures can harm children, and the oil is a hope for parents, he said.

The conservative Legislature of Utah legalized the oil earlier this year, McKim noted.

Rep. Gerald Gay, R-Casper, might sponsor a bill on vegetable-derived analgesics, “a $64 word for painkillers,” he said.

Gay is working on the bill with a physician who specializes in pain. Technology exists to isolate the chemicals in cannabis to create pain medicine that is as effective as or more effective than pharmaceutical drugs and doesn't have the side effects, he said.

The pain medicine wouldn't result in marijuana abuse or intoxication, he said.

Gay needs more time to meet with the physician, whom he declined to identify, and hammer out details.

Gay said his bill may stand alone or be added to McKim’s bill. But McKim told the Star-Tribune he wasn’t interested in marrying his and Gay’s legislation.

Initiatives

NORML Wyoming is writing an initiative for the ballot in 2016 that would legalize marijuana for recreational use for anyone older than 21.

The group has submitted four versions of the initiative to the state, but officials haven’t yet certified it, said Peggy Nighswonger, state elections director.

State certification is the first of many steps before the measure appears on the ballot.

The group is looking for an attorney to help write the initiative, said Jackson resident Chris Christian, who leads NORML.

If it lands on the ballot, NORML may struggle finding support, since most Wyomingites oppose marijuana for recreational use, according to the UW poll.

“We’ve seen referenda concerning personal marijuana use pass in Colorado, Washington state and elsewhere in recent years,” said King, of UW. “It appears that a similar movement in Wyoming would be unsuccessful.”

Christian is undaunted. A public education campaign will change people’s minds, she said. NORML will launch the campaign to gather support for the initiative.

Wyoming Cannabis Activists also plans an initiative for 2016.

Its initiative would legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp, said Marcia Stuelpnagel, of Casper, co-founder of the group.

The group is planning fundraisers to pay for the initiative effort.

“We have it all written out,” she said. “We’re just looking for money.”

Odds

While Burns, the Sheridan senator, is optimistic that medical marijuana will be allowed in Wyoming, others do not believe any use of marijuana will be legalized soon.

Byrd, sponsor of the decriminalization bill, believes the pharmaceutical industry will oppose legalization because marijuana would compete.

“The majority party is too concerned about the screamers from the wings of their party,” he said of Republicans. “If they were more concerned with policy over yelling and screaming, I believe Bruce Burns would be right.”

Byrd doesn’t think his bill will pass this year, either. He’s sponsoring it, he said, to start discussion about sentencing of criminals and drug policy.

Christian believes that one of the lawsuits challenging the federal government’s prohibition of marijuana may be successful.

She also believes the federal government may act faster.

“It’s going to happen federally before it ever happens here,” she said.

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

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