This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes — Ed.
As Wyoming legislators review marijuana laws and fight a growing tide of acceptance they may be crafting their decisions with incomplete information.
For lawmakers, there are plenty of studies, reports, stories and accounts about the evil weed that they can cite in justifying criminal penalties for users. But as they seek to refine laws, it is harder to uncover information about the human cost of jailing marijuana users for minor infractions. So, too, goes the information on the medical benefits of marijuana. Information is hard to come by, critics say, in part because laws make research on medical marijuana difficult to conduct.
More than seven in 10 Wyoming residents support medical marijuana, and 62 percent don’t think you should go to jail for small amounts of pot. Nearly half of the states, Wyoming not included, have legalized medical marijuana; fourteen have decriminalized possession of small amounts, and five states plus the District of Columbia have made marijuana legal. A Gallup poll found 35 million Americans — 11 percent — using pot.
Meantime, on the marijuana reform highway Wyoming is driving in the slow, if not the breakdown, lane. In the Cowboy State, you can spend six months in jail for having an illegal smile. It is a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and up to a $750 fine to be high on marijuana. If you’re caught three times with as little as a roach or an empty pipe with marijuana residue you could be locked up as a felon for five years. In addition to bringing longer jail times and higher fines than a misdemeanor, felonies also can result in the loss of civil rights like voting, the ability to hold office, possession of firearms and so on.
State lawmakers have had an opportunity to change Wyoming’s penalties so that minor infractions result in only tickets and fines. But they rejected a decriminalization bill three years in a row. Wyoming’s approval of a hemp derivative is so limited that most groups don’t classify the state as allowing medical marijuana. Legislators are working today on laws that would define a felony amount for edible marijuana products while Gov. Matt Mead is focused on the “impact on public health and safety” a medical-marijuana initiative or legalization could pose for Wyoming.
A legislative panel that met last month in Rock Springs heard hours of testimony about the benefits and dangers of marijuana. The Joint Judiciary Committee is expected to make a recommendation about edible marijuana penalties to lawmakers before next year’s legislative session. As those elected representatives gird to debate that issue for a second year in a row, however, they’ll find incomplete information regarding the consequences of laws that are already on the books.
Lives ruined over minor infractions
When the Joint Judiciary Committee met in Rock Springs a month ago for a day of comments on marijuana laws, a county prosecutor talked about the need for a new law establishing a felony standard for edible marijuana products. A public defender complained at the same hearing that some penalties — including those mandated by Wyoming’s three-strikes rule — are already too harsh and can ruin lives.
“We are sending people to prison for very minuscule amounts of marijuana,” said Stan Cannon, Supervising Attorney for the Wyoming State Public Defender. In an interview after the hearing, Cannon cited the case of one youthful third-time offender facing a felony charge for a small amount of marijuana. “These kids are in their 20s,” Cannon said. “A lot of these guys are trying to get work in the oilfield. Having a felony on your record just closes the door on you.”
That’s no idle threat to Robert O. Marshall III. Wyoming jailed the Casper resident for more than six years for minor marijuana infractions he said. Diagnosed as permanently disabled with spinal stenosis in 2001, he was arrested and jailed in 2007. “Never have I been arrested for possession of marijuana where they found on me over an one-eighth of an ounce,” he said. “I don’t sell the stuff. I don’t deliver it. I just use a little bit of it because it helps me with the constant agonizing pain. I think the punishment certainly outweighed the crime.”
Marshall’s story might be classified as a “worst-case scenario” of Wyoming drug laws. Then again, it might not. The state has no way of knowing for sure.
Wyoming can’t say how many are arrested, jailed
If lawmakers debating marijuana laws wanted to know how many people are imprisoned under existing statutes they’d have a hard time finding that information. Officials at the Wyoming Department of Corrections can’t say how many prisoners are being held on marijuana convictions.
“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 said. The data system lists “statutory offenses” such as delivery, conspiracy to deliver, or … manufacturing of drugs.
Both Wyoming, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, list marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category that includes heroin and LSD. Schedule I drugs are said to have a high potential for abuse and no known safe medical application.
Wyoming’s jailers don’t keep a list what type of controlled substance was involved — whether, for example, it was heroin or pot — when they lock somebody up for controlled substances infractions. “As far as specific numbers incarcerated for a marijuana-related crime,” Horan said, “that’s just not something our data system can produce at this time.”
State penal institutions account for only a portion of those locked up for marijuana crimes. The DOC does not keep track of Wyoming’s 23 county jails where misdemeanor convicts and others serving less than a year are incarcerated. Although WyoFile could not discover how many people are jailed for marijuana offenses, the governor’s council has dismissed worries that the state’s penalties are corralling too many residents. “…[I]n listening to information derived from Departments of Corrections and jails, there are actually very few individuals in jail or in prison for marijuana use and/or possession,” the council’s 248 page report says.
Lawmakers seeking information on pot arrests also couldn’t find out precisely how many persons law officers arrest annually for marijuana infractions. The Division of Criminal Investigation compiles an annual Uniform Crime Report that seeks to catalog all sorts of bad deeds. In the pending report for 2015, which has yet to be released, it expects to report 1,465 adult and juvenile arrests for possession and sales, said Samantha Kanish, a records analyst with the DCI. Possession and sales of what, exactly, can’t be said — methamphetamine, PCP and marijuana are identical in the eyes of the system, which has other limitations, as well.
For one, reporting is voluntary. One county — albeit Wyoming’s smallest, Niobrara — doesn’t contribute to the annual report. Also, if a person is charged and arrested for both a marijuana infraction and another, more serious, crime, the marijuana arrest won’t show up in statistics.
The reporting system classifies arrests according to a hierarchy that comes into play if a person is charged with several infractions — like driving under the influence and possession or marijuana. In such cases the arrest will be catalogued under DUI and, even though the suspect also faces a marijuana charge, that offense would not register. “That agency that is reporting will pick only one of those [charges] to report,” Kanish said. “States are looking for ways to improve the system to get a better picture.”
Legislative researchers have had a difficult time in this arena as they sought to predict the effect that relaxed penalties might have on marijuana arrests. When Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) tried three times in three years to pass a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, the Legislative Services Office couldn’t estimate the impact on the criminal justice system. “There are no current measures that would allow for an accurate prediction of the number of individuals sentenced pursuant to the proposed legislation,” the LSO note on the 2016 bill said.
The note did recognize a potential but uncalculated savings of $45,625 per year per prisoner and $2,000 per year per probationer. The year before, the LSO said there were approximately 686 marijuana offenders on “supervised misdemeanant probation.” Calculations based on those figures suggest decriminalization would save $1.4 million a year in probation costs.
Other groups have also sought to put a dollar cost on Wyoming’s marijuana laws. In a 2013 paper “Incarceration in Wyoming,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming said the state ranks fifth in the country in per-capita expenditures on enforcement of marijuana laws. Wyoming spent $9.1 million in 2010, the ACLU said.
“The war on drugs, along with the adoption of mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing, three strikes and other ‘tough on crime’ policies have resulted in an explosion of the numbers of people in prison, on parole, and on probation,” the ACLU report said.
The Governor’s Marijuana Impact Assessment Council didn’t assess decriminalization and what effect ticketing, instead of arresting and charging marijuana users, might have on alleviating pressure on court systems. But the council wasn’t asked to probe decriminalization. Its charge was to look into the effects of potential legalization, and there it suggested there would be an increase in court cases.
“…[I]t would appear that crime will actually increase, that dockets will be fuller than ever,” the report said, possibly because of impaired driving cases and similar infractions. “[I]t is reasonable to predict the court systems will not have less defendants to hear, but may actually become overwhelmed.”
Many say marijuana helps them
When the Joint Judiciary Committee met in Rock Springs April 27 panelists heard Marie M. J. Peterson tell how marijuana had helped her and her father. Peterson said in an interview that she suffers from PTSD, anxiety, depression and panic attacks. She took Xanax for a year but didn’t get along with the drug. “They had to wean me off it.”
An activist with 420 Wyoming and Wyoming Women for legal Cannabis and Hemp, she works to help with the Peggy A. Kelley Cannabis Act petition that seeks to put medical marijuana before voters.
“I go to Colorado when I need to medicate,” the Rawlins resident said. “I have been off of prescription drugs for a year now, because of [cannabis].”
Her father, who she said worked as a policeman in Green River, left Wyoming to get medical cannabis for diabetes and shingles — and she helped him obtain a salve. “The last note he wrote me was ‘Thank you for helping me get dope because it was the only thing that could help me with pain.’”
“It’s not about getting high, it’s about healing and having a choice as human beings,” she said. “It’s a human rights issue.”
Amber Sparks, a Casper resident who is the public relations contact for the same two advocacy groups, is a Lupus patient and commercial hemp supporter but opposed to recreational use.
“I honestly don’t think these [lawmakers] are representing the needs of the people,” she said. “I don’t think I should have to move to Colorado — I don’t think anybody else or their family should — to take care of their medical needs. I think it is a travesty to ignore our sick, ailing people.”
The co-chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), says democracy will work. “If and when the majority — this becomes a priority for them — I think their legislators will reflect that and will go forward with that.”
Wyoming residents, who overwhelmingly favor medical marijuana, aren’t waiting for legislators. Scott Sidman, deputy director of Wyoming NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said groups have collected about 15,000 signatures for the Peggy A. Kelley Wyoming Cannabis Act. The group needs roughly 27,000 by Feb. 14, 2017 to get the bill before voters in 2018.
Sidman is convinced marijuana works for him. He received disability status in 2006. He’s had five back surgeries. “Eighty percent of my back is metal,” he said.
A doctor prescribed a powerful, addictive opioid to help him through the pain, but the drugs hooked him and sent his personality reeling. He’s spent roughly 10 years on opiates — medicine derived from opium that’s often prescribed for pain. His daughters called him a zombie. He went broke and was divorced from his wife. “I knew it was killing me,” Sidman said. “I actually used cannabis to get off medications. A lot of what we’re in the fight for is to try and stop the drug abuse of opioids.”
The governor’s council admitted to medical benefits, but its endorsement was hardly full-throated. “There is considerable evidence supporting the idea that various constituents of marijuana could be useful in treating a wide variety of disorders,” the governor’s council said. “There is little doubt that if medical marijuana were available in Wyoming some individuals would experience a degree of symptom relief after using it. But it is impossible to estimate either the number or percentage of Wyoming residents who might be thus benefitted.”
Frank Latta, who was mayor of Gillette and a state representative advocates for medical marijuana now too. He is weaning himself from addictive medicine. When the detox process is complete in about a year, he’ll be out in the cold. He won’t reach for a hookah or hash brownies.
“I have served in this state as a mayor, as a legislator,” he said. “I believe in upholding the laws of the state. I’ve forced myself to say ‘This is the law, I’m going to live by this law.’”
Sidman, also, is literally limping along, consuming ibuprofen, not Wyoming-approved Marinol. “Marinol it doesn’t have the same aspect of CBDs you would actually get from using cannabis oil,” he said. Plus, “I shouldn’t have to leave my home to have a healthier and better quality of life.”
Sidman won’t use marijuana — he has been convicted of pot infractions. “Just out of respect for Wyoming NORML, I have not been medicating with it,” he said.
He sees deleterious effects from the state’s resistance and reluctance to change. Time passes relentlessly, he said, and “there are people who are probably going to die before this becomes legal.”
This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work. For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University — Ed.