Stirring the Pot

By on July 18, 2018

An unlikely group of Wyoming lawmakers buddy up to oppose an anti-edibles bill and substitute it with another that suggests growth toward marijuana reform

JACKSON HOLE, WY – What’s one thing an anti-gay pastor, two anti-abortion gun nuts, a former Bernie Sanders delegate, and a young Christian conservative attorney can agree on?

No joke: They all want to reform Wyoming’s marijuana laws.

The motley crew in question is a group of lawmakers on the Wyoming State Legislature’s House Judiciary Committee. During the 2018 session, they voted en bloc not only to throw into the garbage a proposed bill that would have criminalized edible cannabis—they sent a strong message to their colleagues in support of marijuana reform.

The Wyoming Legislature has grown increasingly conservative in recent years. Far-right newcomers tend to toe the party line when it comes to things like cutting public services and letting oil and gas companies run roughshod. But they often split with traditional Good Ole Boy lawmakers when it comes to weed.

Left-leaning legislators have been pushing cannabis reform in Wyoming for years. But they lack the clout to make anything happen without support from their Republican counterparts. As younger libertarian-types replace crusty cowboys in the state GOP, the Legislature is becoming more and more prone to ditch some of the War on Drugs’ dumbest components.

It helped that Rep. Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) was absent the day the edibles bill came in front of the House Judiciary Committee. The committee’s chairman seems like the type of fuddy-duddy who wears a Wee Willie Winkie-style cap to bed. Kirkbride told WyoFile: “I’m not very friendly toward marijuana getting its foot in the door in Wyoming. One of the things they talk about is how the strength of this stuff has increased since the ’70s and ’80s. I’m a bit old-school. I feel threatened by that.”

In Kirkbride’s absence, Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis) ran the meeting. He’s the pastor who, in 2017, co-sponsored what would have been the worst anti-LGBTQ law in the nation. Despite his bigotry, Winters is sympathetic to criminal justice reform. This is due at least in part to his odd-couple friendship with Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), a former Bernie Sanders delegate. Two pro-life libertarians, Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) and Tim Salazar (R-Dubois), joined Winters and Pelkey in opposing the edibles bill. The two generally vote to reduce government in all its forms unless it involves policing women’s bodies. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) rounded out the coalition—I’m guessing the young Christian conservative attorney just likes to smoke a joint after work.

Despite the pleas of police lobbyists to pass the edibles bill, which would have levied strict penalties against anyone caught possessing “non-plant forms” of marijuana, the five lawmakers voted not only to scrap the proposal—they went one step further.

With a 5–3 vote, they executed a tricky legislative maneuver in which they swapped one bill for another—it’s called introducing a “substitute bill.” In this case, the committee swapped the edibles proposal for a bill that would have actually decreased penalties for simple possession of all forms of cannabis. It wasn’t something they earnestly hoped would become law—despite a very similar bill having gained some traction in 2017, “substitute bills” face steep challenges. Indeed, this one was never introduced for a vote in the full House.

But swapping the bills sent a message to the rest of the Legislature: Don’t expect any proposal that increases marijuana penalties to get past the House Judiciary Committee.

As this newspaper has reported, Wyoming’s marijuana laws are among the harshest in the nation. The state has neglected to join 39 others across the nation in legalizing recreational or medical marijuana, or even decriminalizing it. This is despite drug convictions fueling our incarceration rate at great human and fiscal cost.

Upwards of 80 percent of Wyomingites favor legalizing medical marijuana, and just a toke fewer don’t want to see people locked up for weed. It’s unlikely we’ll see legislators taking bold steps to follow the public’s desires. But there’s nevertheless movement toward incremental change—and even incremental change can’t come soon enough.

In June, a petty dealer named Kenneth Walters sold small amounts of marijuana and “spice” to an undercover cop in Cheyenne. Since the deal took place at Walters’ home near a school, he faces a mind-blowing maximum penalty of 55 years in prison.

Prosecutors regularly use the threat of absurd sentences like this to fast-track young men to prison. In this case, the DA surely knows Walters is represented by a public defender who can’t dedicate much time to his case. The defender will tell Walters to take whatever plea deal is offered him—maybe two to four years. This might seem like a pittance compared to five and a half decades, but it’s still plenty to wreck a young man’s life.

Stripping prosecutors of their ability to use the threat of insane sentences like this might be dissatisfying for folks hoping for total legalization. But slowing down the machine that churns up young men like Walters would do great good.

During each of the past two Legislative sessions, young conservatives like Olsen have sponsored bills to decrease cannabis sentencing, which have done well despite falling short of passage.

Expect other bills to be introduced in 2019 that go even further. Expect their supporters to be left- and—more importantly—right-wing.

About Nate Martin

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