CHEYENNE — State lawmakers defeated another attempt at reforming Wyoming’s marijuana laws when legislators voted to kill a bill Thursday that would have eliminated felony-level possession in Wyoming for recreational users of the drug.
Sponsored by Crook County Republican Tyler Lindholm, House Bill 234 would have eliminated Wyoming’s felony provision for possessing an amount of marijuana with a total dry weight of three ounces.
This, he argued, was a largely arbitrary quantity that had no bearing on the consumption patterns currently practiced by Wyoming residents, who are likely to buy large quantities of marijuana in Colorado — where it is legal to purchase for recreational use — for their own personal use over a period of several weeks or even months, with no intent to sell. If a weight were to be considered, he argued that the weight for misdemeanor possession of marijuana should be raised into poundage, rather than grams or ounces, which would eliminate “non-malicious” users of marijuana from being charged with the most serious drug offense charges.
He was joined by Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, who noted that charging someone with felony intent to sell — rather than simple possession — would depend on the prosecuting attorney to provide burden of proof. This would be demonstrable not just through possessing a large quantity of marijuana but also the possession of paraphernalia like baggies or a scale, which would clearly indicate an intent to sell and distribute the drug.
The bill would also provide amnesty to anyone convicted of a felony level crime for possession without intent to sell.
The House Judiciary Committee, however, expressed a reluctance to work the bill, citing concerns over a lack of language relating to the potency of marijuana-infused products, and voted 8-1 to indefinitely postpone the bill. Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, was the lone dissenting vote.
No state arrests a higher proportion of its population for marijuana. In 2016, Wyoming made 415 marijuana arrests for every 100,000 residents, though it is unclear how many offenders come from out of state. However, those punished can often feel the weight of their offense long after their time served.
Those in favor of the bill argued that Wyoming’s marijuana laws — given legalization in other states — have since become archaic, and hit otherwise law-abiding citizens with unduly harsh punishments for a substance some argue is less harmful than alcohol. In an emotional testimony, bill sponsor Rep. Bunky Loucks, R-Casper, shared the story of a young man he knew, a college graduate, who was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
Though the young man served less than two years in prison, Loucks said, the felony conviction followed him for the rest of his life and, after leaving the corrections system, he had difficulty getting a job, even after filing more than 100 applications.
“Putting people in prison for victimless crimes is something we shouldn’t be doing,” Loucks said. “It’s ruining a lot of people.”
In his testimony, Loucks remembered friends he had to pick up who may have spent a night in jail for alcohol, adding that he hadn’t known any people who have wrecked their car or beaten their wife because of marijuana. Punishing people over possessing a drug that was less harmful than alcohol, he said, is especially harmful to young people.
“They’re going to grow up and not be pot smokers, like most of my friends I know who smoked weed,” he said. “We can’t be throwing away our future.”
Colonel Kebin Haller, Administrator of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, told lawmakers in his testimony that marijuana trafficking in the state has exploded in recent years and that the felony provision was a necessary tool for prosecutors should they need it. He said that in the justice system, he has seen societal acceptance factoring into decisions to prosecute for marijuana-related crimes and that issues like weight aren’t the only circumstances considered in a court of law when deciding one’s intent to distribute.
“There is due process, I can assure you,” he said. “There is prosecutorial discretion. That is not uncommon. That discretion, from what I’ve seen, holds true throughout the state.”
“Each case is looked at on an independent, case-by-case basis,” he added.
Speaking on behalf of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, Byron Oedekoven noted that youthful offenders would already get amnesty under the current system and questioned whether the bill — as written — would require the same alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenses that are being considered in a suite of criminal justice reforms under consideration in the Legislature.
He also noted that while some surrounding states have more liberal provisions for marijuana offenses, numerous surrounding states have much harsher, weight-based felony provisions for marijuana possession, including Washington, Montana and Idaho.
“Clearly, we are not the last bastion of states looking at felony convictions,” he said.