Just what Wyoming needs: More laws to imprison people for marijuana

Dec. 5, 2017

By Better Wyoming staff

Late last month the state Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee voted to sponsor two new bills that would make possessing edible marijuana a felony.

Lawmakers have failed repeatedly to put a law on the books to regulate pot that’s not in “plant form”—from cookies to tinctures and everything in between. But golly gee, they keep trying.

Frank Latta, a former Republican state legislator from Gillette who now directs Wyoming’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says he hopes the two new bills will fail as well. The Judiciary Committee narrowly voted to sponsor them during the upcoming legislative session at a recent meeting in Wheatland.

What kind of miserable state puts people in prison for candy?

Latta said the laws’ main effect would be to put more young people in jail and ruin their lives.

“You’ve got a kid who comes to the University of Wyoming from out of state, goes to a party, comes out with three cookies in his pocket, and he’s got a felony—now he’s our ward for the rest of his life,” Latta told the committee. “This session, with all our financial problems, I can’t believe it’s our priority to add another felony [to state statutes].”

But the committee wasn’t listening. Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) cut off Latta’s testimony while Latta was providing background on the edibles issue. He interrupted Latta mid-sentence, telling him the committee didn’t need a “history lesson.” (Better Wyoming granted Hicks its “Worst of Wyoming” award last session in part for his tendency to badger and interrupt anyone he disagrees with.)

After the meeting, Latta said testifying to his former colleagues was “like talking to a wall.”

Half-baked laws

At a time when many other states are either legalizing or decriminalizing pot, Wyoming has some of the harshest laws in the nation for possessing marijuana in plant form. Being stopped with less than three ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. Being arrested with more than three ounces is a felony, which can result in up to a five-year sentence and a $10,000 fine.

But Wyoming’s doesn’t currently have laws to punish people caught with edibles. That fact galls tough-on-crime lawmakers like Sen. Leland Christensen, a former cop who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers continue to be irked by the playfulness of a judge’s ruling that brought to light the fact that Wyoming lacks edible laws.

In April 2015, police stopped motorist Christopher Piessens, who had 1.9 pounds of marijuana cookies, candies, bread, and chocolate bars in his car. Laramie County District Court Judge Steven Sharpe said he had to throw out felony charges against Piessens because, under Wyoming law, only possession of the plant-form of marijuana is a felony.

“Seeking to take a bite out of crime, the state charged defendant with felony possession of marijuana,” Sharpe wrote in his decision order. He added that the defendant found the state’s charges to be “half-baked.” The judge concluded that “the state bit off more than it could chew.”

This doesn’t mean it’s legal to possess edibles in Wyoming—it’s simply unsettled law, and other judges can just as easily disagree with Sharpe’s amusing ruling.

Last year’s edible defeat

A strong majority in the state—81 percent, according to a University of Wyoming poll last October—favors the legalization of medical cannabis. However, several state lawmakers have said medical marijuana doesn’t have a chance of being considered until they decide the edible marijuana issue.

Latta said that NORML and a group of state law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and legislators thought they had worked out an agreement last year on a bill that would reduce the punishment for first-time offenders possessing less than 3 ounces of marijuana—either in plant or edible form—to no more than 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.

But the compromise was shattered when some law enforcement members of the coalition working on the bill started changing the measure to include stiffer penalties for possessing pot in plant form. Latta revoked NORML’s support for the compromise and neither House or Senate conferees could reach a final agreement on a bill.

The heavier the brownie, the harsher the sentence

One of the two new bills sponsored by the Judicary Committee for the 2018 session is a revised version of the proposal that was rejected in 2017. It would expand the definition of marijuana products to include items such as baked goods, candies, ointments, and potable liquids.

The main problem with the bill is that it would make possessing more than 3 ounces of any of those products a felony, regardless of the amount of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

Tell lawmakers Wyoming has enough felony weed laws

If any member of the Joint Judicial Committee is your representative, please email them and tell them Wyoming doesn’t need any more felony marijuana laws. (Not sure who your reps are? Click here.)

Leland Christensen

Liisa Anselmi-Dalton
(Rock Springs)

Larry Hicks
Forget it. He’s a lost cause.

Dave Kinskey

Dan Kirkbride

Tara Nethercott

Bo Biteman

Mark Jennings

Jared Olsen

Charles Pelkey

Bill Pownall

Tim Salazar

Clark Stith
(Rock Springs)

Nathan Winters

If someone had pot-laced brownies, for instance, law enforcement would weigh the entire amount of the baked goods. Thus a brownie eater could become a felon simply because of the amount of sugar, butter, and flour that was also in the mix.

The second bill assigns respective weights to edible products to determine what amount would constitute a felony. Three or more grams of pure THC concentrate on its own would be a felony, but so would possessing more than 36 ounces of any kind of liquid that’s infused with THC.

So, if you’ve got a Big Gulp with a single drop of weed oil in it, you’d be a felon under the second proposed law.

“We’re still turning Wyoming citizens into felons”

Latta said NORML’s only option with two bad bills going to the Legislature will be to oppose both of them. He said he believes key members of the committee made the decisions about felonizing small amounts of marijuana in edible products long before they met in Wheatland.

“They want this to go on to the Legislature again, which has already defeated it several times,” Latta said. “So now our job is just to work with individual legislators to defeat this bill again.”

Latta named Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) as an ally in his fight to have impairment be the key factor determining whether a marijuana offense is a misdemeanor or a felony instead of a product’s weight. Pelkey told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle that he thinks the committee is still at an impasse on the issue despite the passage of the two draft bills.

“We spent a lot of time on this in the last four years, and it’s not like today had a magic solution,” he told the newspaper. “The bottom line is we’re still turning Wyoming citizens into felons for relatively minor amounts of a drug that 20 miles south of Cheyenne is totally legal.”

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