Fear the Reefer: As the nation’s cannabis laws become more rational, Wyoming is bucking the trend.

By on February 7, 2018

It wasn’t much pot — there was only about $40 worth of the premium strain “Girl Scout Cookies” stowed in the center console of Gabby’s* car as she crossed the state line from Colorado into Laramie in early November 2017.

She’d tucked it away next to some gummies in a childproof pack — each 10 mg piece carefully packaged in an individual blister pocket and stamped with THC — she’d purchased legally across the border.

Careful to avoid speeding, Gabby grew more paranoid as she drove along I-80 on her way home. In a state notoriously underpopulated and low numbers of law enforcement, it sure felt like there were patrol cars everywhere. She eyed craggy crevices and sparse growth where she would stash her cannabis if she got pulled over.

As her paranoia continued to creep up, so did the speed of her car. Higher and higher it went — unnoticed — until right outside of Laramie it happened. The flash of lights, an officer, and a drug bust.

Gabby, an occasional cannabis user and marathon runner who stopped at a dispensary on her way back from a race in Colorado, is now facing some pretty stiff penalties for her “crimes” in Wyoming.

“Looking at it now, it’s so ridiculous,” Gabby said, half-laughing. “I rarely even smoke. I was the kid who didn’t touch alcohol until I was 21. I grew up in a really religious family and it just wasn’t something I thought about.”

Gabby, a veritable teetotaler, is facing misdemeanor charges for that small amount of weed — legal just 20 miles over the border — and it could ruin her burgeoning career in banking. At 24, she can’t afford for that to happen.

In the Cowboy State, Gabby is hardly alone in her plight. Across the nation, the attitudes and policies geared toward marijuana prohibition are continuing to evolve. There are currently 38 states and the District of Columbia that have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, creating enviable economies and industries out of the post-prohibition era.

Those industries, in turn, have helped rake in the tax dollars. The cannabis tax, license and fee revenue raked in by Colorado in 2017 was a whopping $247,368,473, according to colorado.gov. That number is up exponentially from the $67,594,323 the state collected in 2014.

Oregon collected a total of $108.6 million in state and local cannabis taxes between Jan. 4, 2016, and Aug. 31, 2017, and state officials announced in Oct. 2017 they would pay out $85 million in marijuana taxes for schools, public health, police and local governments.

Nevada’s state tax officials stated in Sept. 2017 that the state brought in more than $3.5 million in tax revenue during its first month of recreational cannabis sales.

In San Francisco — where one of the newest recreational markets is up and running — District Attorney George Gascón office announced in early February that it would review, dismiss and seal an estimated 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions dating back to 1975. The office also intends to review and resentence many past felony convictions.

The DA’s move is in line with the state’s 2016 voter-approved marijuana law, which included provisions to allow those with past marijuana convictions to petition the court for expungement.

Legal petitions are costly and time-consuming, though, so Gascón said it made more sense to do it this way, and “wipe out convictions en masse.”

“This example, one of many across our state, underscores the true promise of Proposition 64 – providing new hope and opportunities to Californians, primarily people of color, whose lives were long ago derailed by a costly, broken and racially discriminatory system of marijuana criminalization,” California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement in early February.

The numbers — and the freshly-wiped criminal records — don’t lie. The legal cannabis industry is seeing massive success, and the majority of the nation appears after decade upon decade of prohibition to be embracing marijuana madness.

Wyoming, however, is another story.

Irrational Wyoming

At a time when the rest of the nation is moving to loosen the grip on cannabis, Wyoming is bucking the trend — and not in a good way. State lawmakers are pushing to tighten the reins on cannabis, pushing for laws that will further penalize, not decriminalize, cannabis use.

It’s a puzzling move by state lawmakers, given the overall climate regarding cannabis in Wyoming. Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in America (behind only alcohol and tobacco), and has been used by nearly 100 million Americans. According to government surveys, some 25 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year. More than 14 million do so regularly despite laws against its use, according to NORML.

It seems a bit counterproductive to continually lobby to further outlaw cannabis, given that Wyoming has some of the strictest cannabis laws in the nation.

In Wyoming, possession of under three ounces of cannabis is a misdemeanor that can be punished with up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine; possession of over three ounces is a felony.

Marijuana intoxication is also a crime — a misdemeanor — and is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $750 fine. Get caught cultivating any amount of marijuana, and you’re facing a misdemeanor that can earn you 6 months in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

The felony charges are much harsher. A person in possession of more than 3 ounces of marijuana faces a potential 5-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. Those same penalties apply to the sale or distribution of any amount of marijuana.

The harshest penalties for marijuana involve children. An adult who distributes marijuana to a minor faces up to 20 years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. A marijuana conviction within 500 feet of a school is subject to an additional $500 fine.

Wyoming does allow in very limited capacities the use of medical CBD oil — or in layman’s terms, a non-psychoactive oil derived from cannabis — but the law is extremely limited and provides no legal means of in-state access.

The law only recognizes certain seizure disorders to be treated by CBD oil — inexplicably categorized as “hemp extract” — that cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of THC. To qualify, they must have a written recommendation from a certified neurologist who has tried other treatment options that have proven ineffective. Minors can use CBD oil, but the law holds their parents or guardians responsible for that use.

Only 2.5 percent of registered patients in Colorado and less than 1 percent of patients in Arizona list seizures as their qualifying condition, making a law like this effectively useless for the majority of Wyoming medical patients.

Should a medical patient qualify under Wyoming law, chances are good they’ll need higher levels of THC than currently allowed anyway. CBD therapy is with many seizure sufferers more effective when there’s a higher THC to CBD ratio, but Wyoming law won’t allow it.

But, should there be a Wyoming resident who may benefit from CBD-only oil, the law doesn’t provide for legal route to obtain it. The law prohibits patients from growing their own marijuana or producing oil for their personal use and does not allow a way for patients to procure hemp extracts.

Instead, medical patients are forced to procure their medicine from other legal states or risk purchasing CBD oil from online sources — a legal, but mostly unregulated route of obtaining the oil.

Given the relative uselessness of Wyoming’s CBD oil law, efforts have been made recently to expand the program, but to no avail.

Last year, three bills were proposed that would have expanded the program. The first, HB 265, was sponsored by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Laramie) and would have allowed doctors to recommend low-THC medical cannabis — which is illegal under current state law — but the bill did not set up dispensaries.

The second — HB 81 — would have expanded the existing CBD bill to include dependent adults and any medical conditions, which would have given more medical patients with conditions outside of seizures legal protections under the law.

The third — HB 247 — would have allowed out-of-state patients to legally possess their medicine in Wyoming, which is illegal under current law. Not one of the bills advanced before their deadline, leaving Wyoming’s extremely-limited medical cannabis program to stagnate.

There has been some push toward legalization by Wyoming residents and advocates in spite of lawmakers’ prohibitive stances, although none have been terribly successful. Late last year, Wyoming NORML pushed for a legalization initiative that would have appeared on the 2018 ballot, but the petition lacked enough signatures to become a ballot measure for the 2018 mid-term elections.

Numerous marijuana policy reform bills were introduced during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2017 session, which ended on March 3. A decriminalization bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Baker (R-Sweetwater) failed a committee vote despite bipartisan support, and an effort he led with Rep. James Byrd (D-Laramie) to amend the constitution to legalize marijuana was not considered.

In 2016, an initiative that would have legalized marijuana in Wyoming for recreational purposes was attempted but did not garner enough signatures to make it on to the November 2016 ballot. Another bill that would have decriminalized marijuana possession (again sponsored by State Representative James Byrd of Cheyenne) failed for the third year in a row.

Wyo lawmakers’ refusal to compromise on cannabis makes little sense, given the overall support for sensible cannabis laws, medical or otherwise, by Wyoming residents. A poll taken in late 2016 showed that 81 percent of Wyoming residents supported medical marijuana, and 72 percent opposed jail time for possession of small amounts. Those numbers are well above the majority.

The hard-nosed anti-cannabis stance in Wyoming isn’t just puzzling, though. It’s also incredibly costly. While the exact cost of fighting cannabis in Wyoming isn’t clear, we do know that enforcing marijuana prohibition nationwide costs taxpayers an estimated $10 billion annually and results in the arrest of more than 600,000 individuals per year.

That number is far more than the total number of arrestees for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, according to NORML.

About Those Edibles

As odd as it may sound, Gabby actually got lucky during her minor pot bust. Based on the weight of her cannabis products, Gabby was carrying a hefty amount of edibles — i.e. those gummies, which also come in pot brownies, cookies and other confectionary delights — and under Wyoming law, they are technically not illegal. Well, they’re sort of not illegal. It’s complicated.

While cannabis plant material is severely punished under Wyoming law, edibles are another story. Edibles were until the last few years prosecuted like plant forms of cannabis, but a couple of cases set precedent when the judges decided that because the state’s marijuana laws are confined to the plant form, they had to throw out felony charges against anyone caught with edible pot.

In one case, a Laramie County judge dismissed charges against a man stopped with about two pounds of edible marijuana in his vehicle.

“I know I got lucky,” Gabby said. “I mean, I know that now. I didn’t know about the loophole. Who does? It’s not something that’s advertised.”

Rather than charge her for the gummies — two packages — the officer who pulled her over confiscated them instead. Her charge stems from the plant matter alone — not the edibles. A lucky break, considering how hard Wyoming is trying to fight to criminalize edibles too.

The challenge with edibles, crime lab analysts have said in the past, is that it’s difficult to test the amount of THC they contain. There is equipment that does the testing, but it’s not cheap, and Wyoming as a whole can’t afford it — they cost about $175,000, David Delicath, Wyoming deputy attorney general, said in 2015.

Without the equipment it’s hard to separate THC from ingredients such as butter, sugar, cocoa and flour. Given the financial hurdles, lawmakers have been working to close the edibles issue by widening current law regarding pot instead.

Since 2015, Wyoming lawmakers have presented bills in each legislative session to essentially treat edibles as plant matter. Those attempts have all failed.

“This is not a huge problem,” Frank Latta, director of Wyoming NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in 2015. “We’re not talking about a violent crime.”

Ninth District Judge Norman Young of Fremont County said in 2015 that plenty of people were getting caught in Wyoming with edibles after crossing the border from Colorado, but judges and prosecutors weren’t sure how to handle charging them, considering the weight of the non-psychoactive ingredients — butter, cocoa and the like — played into the equation.

“It’s a hole,” Young said. ”It’s a very significant hole right now, given the way things are in Colorado.”

And therein lies the problem. Without the proper equipment, Wyo prosecutors have two choices: Let it go — as they did recently with Gabby — or attempt to charge someone caught with edibles by the weight of the product, not the amount of THC in it.

Wyoming’s state crime lab says it can’t measure for THC, and the THC levels listed on labels counts as hearsay and is inadmissible in court, which means it’s nearly a guarantee that prosecuting edibles cases means the state or county loses.

“The fundamental problem is whether you want to charge someone as a felon for bringing a 16-ounce, THC-laden drink back into the state of Wyoming,” Democratic state Rep. Charles Pelkey told Wyoming Public Media earlier this year.

Pelkey said the legislature has wasted too much time on the issue and should move to decriminalize Wyoming’s marijuana laws instead.

“I haven’t spent this much time listening to people pointlessly talk about weed since I was in high school,” he said.

Brownie “Burdens”

Considering Wyoming’s harsh stance on plant product, it seems unlikely that the Equality State will swing toward decrim anytime soon. But the state inexplicably still continues this push to outlaw edibles, despite their three-time loss track record.

Earlier this month, lawmakers in the state’s Joint Judiciary Committee again voted to advance two cannabis bills to the 2018 budget session, both with the explicit goal of increasing penalties for non-plant forms of marijuana — i.e. those pesky edibles.

One of those bills would have potentially devastating effects on cannabis users, as it would widen Wyoming’s 3-ounce limit to include edibles, topicals, drinks like Dixie Elixers’ THC-infused drinks and other products, even if the THC content is far less than one would find in 3 ounces of plant product.

What that means is that any edible — a cookie, a bag of THC-laced chips or some weed truffles — that weighs over 3 ounces would be felony territory.

The second bill would categorize cannabis products into several categories. 3 ounces of edible marijuana would be a felony, and possessing more than 36 fluid ounces of a cannabis beverage would also constitute a felony charge. The felony weight of cannabis oils, on the other hand, would drop from 3 ounces to only 3 grams, making the punitive component of being caught with cannabis oil in Wyoming much, much heavier.

Wyoming Attorney General John Knepper said the strict proposals reflect the dangers of marijuana edibles. According to Knepper, people frequently eat a higher dose of edibles than recommended and experience “extreme psychological effects” which cause them to end up in the emergency room.

“One of the things that the edible marijuana industry has taught us is that if you want to sell a psychoactive substance, a really effective way is to bundle it with chocolate because that’s something people like,” Knepper told Wyoming Public Media earlier this year.

Knepper did not site statistics for that information, and perhaps for good reason. In reality, edible “overdoses” — if one can call them that — are rare.

To be fair, it is certainly possible to consume too many edibles — often caused by novice or uneducated imbibing — but while ingesting too many edibles is miserable because the abundance of THC in your system can cause anxiety and paranoia, the remedy in most cases is to just wait it out. You won’t die — you might just feel like you are.

Still, despite the relative harmlessness of edibles, Wyoming’s lawmakers and Knepper are determined to outlaw edibles for good in 2018.

Scary, and Nearly Nonexistent, Stats

Even if the push to close the edible loophole in Wyoming in 2018 is successful, is it really necessary? That’s the 20 million dollar question in this equation.

Out of the total of 15,881 persons who were arrested and subsequently detained in a county detention facility in Wyoming during 2016, marijuana was involved in 12.22 percent of all custodial arrests, according to the Alcohol and Crime in Wyoming Executive Summary – 2016, a report released by the The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. The counties with significantly higher statistics of marijuana-related arrests in 2016 were Platte – 33.61 percent; Carbon – 26.58 percent; and Converse – 22.09 percent.

The statistics regarding cannabis are much lower than other substances like alcohol, which was involved in 57.01 percent of all custodial arrests during the same period in 2016, making alcohol the prevailing substance issue across Wyoming.

But that’s about where the clear marijuana-related stats end for Wyoming. If you want to dig any further into the who, what, when, where and why of cannabis crimes in Wyoming, good luck and Godspeed. Wyoming as a whole doesn’t break down drug arrests and incarcerations into specific categories, meaning that any and all arrests and incarcerations for cannabis-related crimes are counted alongside drugs like methamphetamine and heroin.

The closest we can get to understanding marijuana arrests in Wyoming comes by looking at the overall drug statistics. In the third quarter of 2017 — the most recent statistics available — 690 men and 351 women were arrested in Wyoming for drug-related charges, including sale/distribution, manufacturing and possession, according to the Uniform Crime Report. Possession of what — again — isn’t clear.

The statistics for the year 2016 showed that 2,784 adult males and 1,179 adult women were arrested for drug-related charges in Wyoming, according to the Uniform Crime Report. It would be interesting to see what percentage of those arrests were cannabis-related, but again, those stats aren’t readily available.

Officials at the Wyoming Department of Corrections aren’t much help, either. They can’t say how many prisoners in the Wyoming system are being held on marijuana convictions because, well, they don’t keep track.

“Unfortunately our data system right now does not allow us to specifically pull up inmates by their crime to that detail,” DOC spokesman Mark Horan told WyoFile in 2016. As with the Uniform Crime Report, the data kept by the DOC lists “statutory offenses” such as delivery and conspiracy to deliver.

Whether or not the number of marijuana-related statistics can be determined, one thing is clear: Wyoming — the least populated state in the country — has a serious incarceration problem, for drugs and otherwise.

Behind Wyoming’s Bars

Incarceration rates in the state of Wyoming have increased significantly over the past twenty years, according to the ACLU of Wyoming, which has resulted in an overburdened criminal justice system.

In 2015, the number of people incarcerated in Wyoming — both in jail and prison — was 3,887, according to data compiled by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit working for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system. The number of incarcerated in Wyoming has grown steadily since 1980 when there were just 534 people locked up across the state.

One of the most significant factors contributing to this trend is the increasing number of state laws establishing new crimes and the move toward longer, harsher penalties, according to a Nov. 2017 report released by the ACLU of Wyoming.

That trend of adding crimes and increasing punishments is exactly what lawmakers in Wyoming ware intending to do with the edibles legislation.

“Over the course of the past four years alone, the legislature has passed 28 bills establishing new crimes or increasing penalties for crimes which already exist,” according to the ACLU report. “By contrast, a mere five bills have passed removing crimes or decreasing penalties, only two of which deal substantively with criminal issues such as drug use or juvenile crime.”

The last ten years in Wyoming weren’t much better. Wyoming legislature established over 70 new crimes and increased punishments during that decade, according to the ACLU.

One in every 130 Wyoming residents is incarcerated, and one in every 58 is under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether in prison, in jail, or on probation or parole. The number of people kept in jail pre-trial has nearly quadrupled since 1993, resulting in higher costs to local governments and thousands of individuals being incarcerated despite not having been convicted of a crime.

The ACLU said Wyoming lawmakers should be working toward improving the overtaxed justice system by implementing legislative fixes like probation and parole reform, a boot camp program for women, and — you guessed it — revisiting drug laws that are responsible for sending people to prison for crimes that could be dealt with through citation or probation.

“The ‘tough on crime’ tactics of the past are ineffective, have filled our jails and prisons to capacity, and have failed to make our state any safer,” Sabrina King, ACLU of Wyoming policy director, said. “The legislature has the power the responsibility to reduce incarceration rates, keep our communities safe, and ensure our state is fiscally sound.”

Rather than doing that, though, it appears Wyoming lawmakers will be continuing to try and push more cannabis laws in 2018 instead.

The Real Cost

The real kicker here is that while Wyoming continues to take aim at cannabis, the state is is serious financial trouble, slashing budgets left and right — up to and including funds for higher education. Those cannabis taxes — or at least the money spent busting cannabis users — sure would come in handy right now.

The University of Wyoming lost four times as many faculty members in the past year than it has in recent years, thanks to massive budget cuts and a voluntary severance program. The severance program was part of $10 million in university cuts, and accounted for 43 of the 86 professors, researchers, lecturers and other instructors who left iin 2017. Resignations accounted for the other 43.

The university completed a $42 million budget reduction during the most recent biennium, and the biennium budget for fiscal years 2019-2020 is still being ironed out.

University officials requested roughly $376 million for the biennium in December — an amount significantly reduced from biennium requests made before the state financial crisis, which began in late 2015 — but whether this will be the end to budget cuts isn’t clear yet.

If Wyoming were to, say, stop trying to close loopholes regarding edibles and loosen those cannabis laws, the potential pot tax revenue would certainly help to fund the university. In fact, tax revenue from a legal cannabis industry could bring in somewhere close to $16 million, according to researchers. That sure would help fund some programs or professor salaries.

But it seems for now, Wyoming is content to eschew the trends and dump money into prosecuting low-level cannabis crimes instead. If fourth time is a charm for those edible laws — 2018 brings new eyes and new debates — personal cannabis users like Gabby could end up in jail for a decade for getting caught two packages of gummies. That’s a high price to pay for everyone in the state.

“I’m on the hook for like, $1,000 if I don’t get out of this,” Gabby said. “I guess it’s better than jail time, but when you add up what I’ve spent on attorneys to try and keep this thing from landing on my record, it’s a lot of money.”

And for people like Gabby, it’s hardly just about the money. She could be fighting a blemish on her criminal background checks — par for the course in the banking industry — for years to come.

“I’m not sure why Wyoming thinks a small amount of weed is worth a ruined life,” she said. “But it appears they do. The cost to us and to the state with more people in jail for nonviolent crimes just doesn’t seem worth it.” PJH

 


About Angelica Leicht

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