CHEYENNE – A bill that would decriminalize up to an ounce of marijuana possession passed a House committee Tuesday morning.
Under House Bill 29, a person caught with marijuana would face fines rather than the possibility of jail time.
The House Judiciary Committee increased the fines proposed in the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Byrd, D-Cheyenne.
Byrd proposed a fine of $50 for possessing up to a 0.5 ounces of marijuana and $100 for up to an ounce. The committee increased those fines to $250 and $500 respectively.
Byrd said he was OK with the fines. He just wanted the bill to advance out of the committee.
HB29 still has at least seven more rounds of voting before it could become law. Byrd said he expects a strong effort to defeat it.
“The idea here is when a crime is committed, a nonviolent crime, that the punishment fit the crime,” Byrd told committee members.
Colorado has legalized marijuana, and many Wyomingites are traveling south to partake, Byrd said. People could potentially be charged with a crime if there is residue left in a vehicle ashtray, he said.
Additionally, Montana has legalized medical marijuana and Nebraska has decriminalized small amounts, said Ryan Frost, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming.
Legislative staff members were unable to determine the bill’s fiscal impact on the state but noted in documents that it costs $45,625 a year to incarcerate someone.
The cost to supervise someone on probation is about $2,000.
Yet law enforcement agencies are uneasy about the bill.
Sam Powell of the Wyoming Peace Officers and Highway Patrol associations said that decriminalization may be an issue closer to the hearts of people in Cheyenne, since the city is just miles from Colorado.
"Please remember you all represent the state of Wyoming, not just Laramie County,” he said.
While Powell agrees that many people make mistakes when they are young – one of Byrd’s arguments in favor of his bill is to avoid ruining a person’s life over a lapse in judgment– he asked: “Are you really enabling them to continue making the same mistake?”
Powell believes criminal enterprises may be running weed obtained in Colorado through Wyoming to get to other states. Decriminalization would hurt law enforcement’s ability to deter crime, he said.
However, most on the committee seemed to agree with Byrd that people are not transporting for resale the amounts described in HB29.
Colorado resident Deb Palm-Egle, 58, told committee members she suffers from multiple sclerosis and began using marijuana to help with symptoms some 30 years ago when it was illegal. She owns a ranch in Laramie County and has family in Wyoming, some of whom she has given marijuana for medical purposes.
An updated law would help when she travels to Wyoming with marijuana, she said.
“I use it because it helps me walk, (and) I use it because it helps me see,” she said. “These are all things affected by MS.”
Voting in favor of the bill were Reps. David Miller, R-Riverton, Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, Marti Halverson, R-Etna, Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, and Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis.