A state legislator believes Wyoming needs sentencing reform, and he’s starting with an issue that’s now ruining the lives of young people throughout the state: marijuana possession.
“The punishment needs to fit the crime,” said Rep. James Byrd, a Democrat who represents House District 44 in Cheyenne. “We need sentences that are more in line with social attitudes.”
Current state law ridiculously punishes offenders who possess even a small amount of marijuana with up to a year in jail and/or a fine up to $1,000. For having less than a joint up to three ounces? That’s not only unreasonable, it’s insane.
“A large percentage of people arrested for small amounts of marijuana are young people, and once you get socked with this punishment and have a criminal record, a kid’s life is pretty much over, other than working menial jobs,” Byrd said.
“Sentencing people to a life of mediocrity isn’t fair,” he asserted. “It’s not based on the severity of the act.”
Byrd isn’t proposing legalization. He sponsored a bill earlier this year to make possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable by only a fine, instead of a jail sentence. During the budget session, the measure needed two-thirds support to be introduced, but only 15 of the 60 House members backed the bill.
In the upcoming 2015 general session, bills only need a simple majority to be introduced and assigned to a committee. Byrd is hopeful more of his colleagues will understand his proposal better and support it, though he recognizes it’s an uphill battle.
“There will always be people who say marijuana is a drug and it’s evil and you’re going to hell for smoking it,” the legislator said. “But you could have the same debate about marijuana today that people did in the 1920s over alcohol, which our society eventually decided should be a legal drug.”
The Democrat, who has served in the House since 2009, said his bill would make possession of up to an ounce of pot a civil penalty with a $100 fine, similar to a traffic ticket. Up to a half-ounce would be a $50 fine. His proposal would introduce some sense into a criminal justice system that is far from just.
Byrd has amended his 2014 bill to address multiple infractions. “People told me you could literally be stopped nine, 10, 50 times and still only pick up a ticket, and they didn’t feel that was right,” he said, agreeing with the assessment. He is considering making the number of times one can be ticketed between three and five before more serious punishment is meted out.
But it probably won’t be three times, he noted, simply because it’s a reminder of the three-strike law for habitual offenders that results in a felony in Wyoming, no matter where the offenses occurred.
A poll released last week by the University of Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center shows attitudes about recreational marijuana changing a bit, but 60 percent of voters still oppose legalizing it. Thirty-five percent support the personal use of marijuana by adults, which is up from 23 percent in 2000. Byrd’s proposal is headed in the right direction, and is a fair penalty for having a drug that has never killed anyone and in fact helps patients in severe pain.
Meanwhile, support for medical marijuana has remained constant in Wyoming. Nearly three-fourths agree that people who need marijuana for a variety of medical reasons, including cancer and glaucoma, should be able to have it prescribed by a physician.
Of course, there are fiscal benefits to states that have also approved marijuana for personal use. Through taxes on the formerly underground product, Colorado pot dispensaries raised nearly $19 million in state tax revenues from January to June, which primarily went to public education. Some of those funds obviously came from Wyoming residents.
The Colorado Futures Project predicts recreational marijuana tax revenue in Colorado will eventually increase to $100 million annually.
The UW poll results show support for the reduced sentences for pot possession that Byrd is advocating. Nearly two-thirds believe the penalty for small amounts of marijuana should not include jail time.
Byrd said incarcerating people for a non-violent offense like possessing marijuana results in unnecessary overcrowding of the prison system, longer court dockets, and helps people “hone their craft” and learn how to commit other crimes while incarcerated at the taxpayers’ expense.
He called his bill “an ice-breaker” that should spark discussion about reducing marijuana penalties and sentences for other offenses. Byrd said other legislators will sponsor at least two more pot-related bills next year: one dealing with synthetic cannabis and another to approve medical marijuana, which is legal in neighboring Colorado and Montana, plus 21 other states.
Byrd said he’s sponsoring his marijuana sentence reform bill by himself, even though he had some legislators who volunteered to co-sponsor it. “I’m willing to climb out on that limb by myself; there’s no need to have anyone else risk their careers or use up their political capital on this,” he said. “I’ll be happy just to get their votes.”
Keith Goodenough, who served four years in the House and 10 years in the Senate, knows exactly what Byrd is talking about. He was the pioneer of pot legislation in Wyoming, sponsoring six bills during his years at the Capitol more than a decade ago. All were unsuccessful, but in 2003 he did manage to get the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve a medical marijuana measure by a 3-2 vote.
Goodenough said Republican Senate leaders “put their thumb on the bill,” so it was never considered by the full Senate.
“It’s an issue of fairness,” he said at the time. “If you’re gonna die in two months, you should be able to do whatever you want. It really bothers me that the government steps between the doctor and patient.”
Goodenough, whose term on the Casper City Council will expire at the end of this month, maintains the same position. He hopes a dozen years after his final attempt, other lawmakers will eventually get bills passed to approve medical marijuana and decriminalization.
Goodenough said he probably did pay a political price for his efforts. “The older crowd, which is slowly passing on — they’re inundated with [drug] propaganda and never know anything else,” he said. “It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction. I’m sure some people still vote against me because of that.
“I just tried to do the right thing and hoped people would see that as an advantage,” he added. “But not yet.”
Byrd, though, said he sees legislators today he almost always disagrees with — both conservatives and libertarians — tell him they will support his bill. “I guess there is some common ground after all,” he surmised.
Goodenough compared the situation to the support gay marriage picked up over the years before Wyoming and other conservative states finally accepted it.
“Like on any social issue, the population’s opinion has to change first,” said the former lawmaker. “Opponents [of same-sex marriage] are finding out their lives haven’t seriously changed since it was approved.”
Some may consider Goodenough and Byrd political mavericks for taking on such a controversial subject as marijuana. But in reality, they’re in favor of fair, common sense reform of sentences that are incredibly out of line with today’s society. We need more people in the Legislature with such values.