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Last week at orientation for the University of Michigan Law School, there was a discussion about how states, even unknown and tiny Wyoming, participate in international trade. The presenter’s point was that business is global, but to me highlighted the economic challenges facing Wyoming.

Economic diversification has long been a goal of Wyoming leaders, but it’s easier said than done. We have a long road ahead to transform our commodities-based economy and extraction-dependent tax structure into one that’s built for the 21st century. Wyoming’s revenue stream is the most volatile only behind Alaska due to the nature of boom and bust cycles in the mineral extraction industries that are our bread and butter.

Governor Mead’s Endow and accompanying Engage initiatives were created to recommend policy changes needed to build an economy of the future and tackle the barriers facing our state, like the need for strong infrastructure and the lack of community amenities that will attract a skilled workforce. Both reports contain common sense and creative steps to fostering Wyoming’s entrepreneurial ecosystem like investing in a state agency to support Wyoming-grown businesses and a funding mechanism for start-ups to access capital.

I was unable to participate, but would have advocated for what I see as an opportunity to expand our economy, create new business, reform our justice system, and contribute to the live and let live culture that my generation values: marijuana legalization.

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the get go. No, I’m not clearing the smoke from a bong rip and no, I didn’t spend last weekend spaced out eating hash brownies. And though this may have lit a controversy, smoking a little weed on the weekend didn’t ever make me want to snort cocaine or smoke meth.

It’s time for us to bring marijuana out of the shadows and above board. Twenty-two states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana; it is now legal and regulated for adult use in eight states and Washington, D.C.; and thirty states, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico have approved medical marijuana. Spoiler: Wyoming is not on these lists.

There is a long history of substance abuse in my family. We lost my forty-six year old sister to liver failure from alcoholism, my mother is a counselor who helps people struggling with substance abuse, and a number of my close and distant relatives suffer from addictions. I do not take on this subject lightly. But lives are ruined and people of color are disproportionately affected by the costly war against on a drug that by a lot of measures is less harmful than alcohol. With legalization, law enforcement and addiction experts can focus on more pressing public issues and new tax dollars can be more efficaciously directed to support those who need it most.

Others are already hazed, if you will, meaning we know what’s working and what isn’t and can craft an approach that works for us, as we would do for any other business. Look at Wyoming’s forward-thinking leadership on blockchain technology – we know how to blaze new trails.

Marijuana legalization has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs as once unregulated, illicit income is replaced by full and part-time work and new businesses are formed and contribute to the economy and to communities. In most instances, tax revenues in states that have legalized marijuana exceed projections. Since 2014, Colorado has collected over $600 million. Nevada collected 10 percent more than projected, raising $55.53 million in the first year of regulated sales and Alaska, likely the most comparable state to Wyoming, collected $11 million in the 2018 fiscal year. These funds benefit communities by being directed to local needs including public schools, healthcare, substance abuse treatment, recidivism reduction, bullying prevention and other socially beneficial programs.

Legalization is not a panacea for Wyoming or any other state’s budget, but its role shouldn’t be discounted. Not to get into the weeds of Wyoming’s budget, but in recent years, healthcare, education and many social services have suffered deep cuts, and Wyoming communities are struggling to fund basic services. In the past two years alone, Wyoming lawmakers cut public education funding by $104 million. Marijuana legalization would be a step in the right direction to diversifying our income streams and investing in alternative approaches to help us thrive.

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I only have my own anecdotal evidence and a strong suspicion confirmed by Colorado dispensary workers that Wyomingites head south to purchase cannabis products. These would-be felons aren’t just my peers; Wyomingites of all ages are seeking relief for a myriad of physical and mental health issues, including but not limited to chronic back pain, cancer and other serious illnesses, nausea and anxiety. When they come home, they face the risk of arrest and jail time, especially with laws that are unclear how to quantify the penalty for cannabis-infused candies, sodas and oils. They’re also sending their tax dollars south and to Colorado jobs, small businesses and schools.

Space limitations constrained citing resources in this column, but if you’d like to read more, I suggest the American Civil Liberties Union, Drug Policy Alliance and National Conference of State Legislatures.

It’s time to approach marijuana differently. If you agree we should put our energy and resources toward smarter drug policy and stop standing in the way of a potential new economic driver, I encourage you to speak to your legislators and candidates about this issue.

It will take courage on our leaders’ parts and insistence on ours to get past taboos like this one in order to have a real conversation about what we need to ensure our state’s future prosperity. We have long been a live and let live state that values personal liberty and state autonomy. The federal government has gotten it wrong, creating another opportunity for us to assert our cowboy independence. I suggest we do just that.

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Brianna Jones Rich is a student at the University of Michigan Law School and former executive director of the Equality State Policy Center. The Wheatland native serves on the boards of the National Wildlife Federation and takes every opportunity to travel the world.

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