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.
It would be a stretch to call Gillette resident Frank Latta a druggie. He’s served in the Wyoming Legislature, run successful businesses, been the mayor of his town.
It would be hard to accomplish such a career in a tie-dye T-shirt and hanky headband behind the wheel of flower-painted VW. Yet Latta will tell you he’s a drug addict who yearns for pot — medical marijuana.
Latta is trying to kick his addiction to clonazepam, a legal drug that he has taken for about five years to combat the effects of Multiple Sclerosis. When his symptoms improved he stopped taking the medicine cold-turkey.
That’s when the sweats and nightmares started. He called his doctor. “You should have died or at least gone into seizures,” he recalls the doctor saying.
Latta was addicted — courtesy of a doctor’s legal prescription. He had to get back on the drug and is now tapering use to avoid harsh withdrawal symptoms. What he’d really like to do is treat himself with cannabis, widely recognized as benefitting MS patients. But that’s illegal in Wyoming. Simply put, his former colleagues in the Legislature won’t let him have the medicine he needs to live more comfortably.
Wyoming lawmakers are OK allowing people to take addictive opioids and his habit-forming medicine, known as a benzodiazepine. But not pot. “It’s OK for me to get hooked on heroin,” Latta says, “but it’s not OK for me to take a derivative of cannabis.”
While Wyoming has legalized medical use of a hemp extract, marijuana advocates disparage the derivative, don’t consider it medical marijuana, and point out that there’s no legal avenue to obtain it in Wyoming. So Latta and others are trying to convince legislators to loosen marijuana restrictions.
But efforts to liberalize marijuana laws stall in Cheyenne. Marijuana bills, “they don’t make it very far,” said Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), co-chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee. In the last three years, for example, efforts to decriminalize marijuana have failed 45-15, 38-22 and 39-20.
Wyoming lawmakers’ sentiments are clear. But a University of Wyoming survey found 72 percent of residents support medical marijuana in Wyoming. It also teased out the results according to age and political beliefs, unveiling a divide “linked to political ideology and age,” wrote James King, a member of the university’s Department of Political Science. Those classifying themselves as “liberal” supported the use of marijuana as a medicine about 50 percent more often than those identifying themselves as “conservative.” When it comes to age, medical marijuana support is lowest among senior citizens, King wrote.
In Wyoming, the young and the liberal aren’t in the best position to change laws. Twenty-six out of 30 state senators are Republicans, only four are Democrats. In the House, there are 51 Republicans, nine Democrats. The average Wyoming lawmaker is 59 years old, while the average Wyoming voter is 12 years younger, only 47.
If Latta can’t find relief in Cheyenne, he might find sympathy among the super-majority of residents who support legalizing medical marijuana. A board member for Wyoming NORML, the Equality State chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Latta is signing voters up in an attempt to get a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot in 2018.
While his group works toward legalizing medical marijuana, lawmakers are trying to ratchet up cannabis penalties by refining laws regarding edible marijuana products. When Christensen’s committee met in Rock Springs April 27, a significant portion of its attention focused on edibles and how to create felony charges that would stand up in court.
As a nationwide tide sweeps toward liberalization, are Equality State lawmakers trying to motor the other way?
Lawmakers mull “need” for tougher laws
The balance of marijuana laws teeter on Christensen’s shoulders as the co-chairman of Wyoming’s Joint Judiciary Committee. A Republican candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, he grew up in the agricultural community of Alta and became an auctioneer and a cop. His wide-brimmed cowboy hat and rapid-fire bid-barking are fixtures at the Teton County Fair and nonprofit fundraisers. Christensen was a special forces soldier before making a 20-year career in law enforcement with sheriff’s departments in Teton and Lincoln counties. He heard plenty of public debate serving as a Teton County Commissioner before election to the Legislature in 2010.
In Cheyenne, Christensen gets his marching orders from the Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council. It tells him what his committee should study between sessions. The elite panel of 13, from House and Senate leadership, assigned Christensen’s committee a review of marijuana laws, opioid use, “the need for legislation on edible marihuana [sic] products,” and “concerns” over the medical marijuana petition. All that and more was on the judiciary committee agenda for a meeting in Rock Springs on April 27.
A leader of the Governor’s Marijuana Impact Assessment Council was there as well. Gov. Matt Mead assembled that 22-member body a year ago, also largely from the upper echelons of state government. About a third of the panel are or were law enforcement professionals. About a third are agency heads. Rep. James Byrd (D–Laramie), who has introduced decriminalization legislation three times, also serves on the council.
The establishment makeup shouldn’t be surprising given the panel’s charge — “to assess the impact on public health and safety,” of medical marijuana and recreational use. In a 248-page “Review of Literature and Subcommittee Reports” the council rated dozens of cannabis and marijuana studies. It made no recommendations.
At its April meeting in Rock Springs, the judiciary committee also heard comment from witnesses and the public. Byron Oedekoven, director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, brought Dr. Elina Chernyak of the Addiction Medicine Clinic at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County. She provided a four-page outline of marijuana horrors. If any legislator needed an anti-marijuana peg on which to hang his or her hat, Chernyak provided plenty.
“Children who use marijuana are less likely to graduate high school and less likely to obtain college degrees,” her paper asserts; Pot stunts growth; Nursing babies absorb THC (the principle ingredient that makes users euphoric) if their mother smokes; Persistent cannabis use destroys nervous tissues in the adolescent brain; Those who start using as adolescents are more likely to continue and suffer “greater decline in IQ” that can’t be reversed; frequent use leads to a 7 percent drop in IQ.
Chernyak’s outline continued: Chronic cannabis smokers remain uncoordinated “for at least three weeks” after they quit using; There was a “significant increase” in marijuana found in drivers involved in fatal crashes since medical cannabis expansion in Colorado in 2009; Cannabis increases suicide attempts among those with depression; It increases psychosis — delusions and hallucinations; Up to 4 percent of pot users become dependent within 24 months.
Christensen said that many of those assertions have been challenged. “I know there were people … some flat said she was a liar,” Christensen said in an interview after the hearing. “None of this is opinion or conjecture,” he said of Chernyak’s statements. “It’s all based on reports. She said it’s all got credibility or statistics behind it.”
In contrast, marijuana proponents offered mainly anecdotal evidence, he said. “We asked them to quote their sources and everybody quoted some doctor in Israel. If we’re going to get doctors name-dropped in on us … this [Chernyak] is a Wyoming doctor,” with experience in addiction counseling.”
Vehicles full of gummy bears
Along with cops, prosecutors also had a say in April. The Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association selected Sweetwater County’s prosecuting attorney to represent its position and he began with a local story. Dan Erramouspe told the committee of an invasion of Wyoming by traffickers from nearby Colorado where recreational marijuana has been legal to sell to those older than 21 since 2014. “We have large amounts of marijuana [coming in] specifically in the edible form,” he said. “We’re pulling over vehicles that have massive amounts of gummy bears, brownies…”
But those edibles apparently haven’t found their way to the youth of County 4. “Right now we haven’t seen as much local impact,” Erramouspe said in an interview after the hearing. Instead, the big problem is an influx of methamphetamine and its use.
Nevertheless, Erramouspe sounded like a pitchman for potato chips when he told Christensen’s committee about the dangers of cannabis-laced candy. “Nobody’s ever eaten one gummy bear in their life,” he said.
Christensen’s committee is focusing on edible marijuana products in part because of a judge’s decision last year that complicated Wyoming’s edible enforcement scene. First District Court Judge Steven Sharpe last summer threw out felony charges against Christopher Piessens who had been stopped with 1.9 pounds of marijuana candies, cookies, bread and chocolate bars, “Because it is undisputed that the edibles in this case were not in plant form.” Case dismissed.
That’s right; while Wyoming’s marijuana laws apply with black and white certainty to the “green leafy substance” that’s so ubiquitous in police reports, their application to THC infused edibles is questionable. As a result of last summer’s failed prosecution, and possibly others, possessing edibles is treated as a misdemeanor in many Wyoming jurisdictions, even “if you’ve got a van full of gummy bears,” prosecutor Erramouspe told the judiciary committee. That limits penalties to a year in jail and $1,000 in fines — felony convictions usually bring up to five years in prison. “This is not a reasonable approach,” the prosecutor told the committee. “We’re treating [edibles] as something lesser. If anything, it’s not.”
Erramouspe and his fellow prosecutors want legislation that would allow them to charge defendants according to overall weight of the contraband snack even though the weight of edibles has little to no correlation with dosage. “All the other controlled substances are measured by weight,” Erramouspe said in an interview. “Five pounds, unless you’re Willie Nelson, is not going to be considered personal use.”
The alternative — testing for THC content — could protect citizens from serving jail time for low-dosage but high-weight products such as infused beverages, but it’s time consuming, expensive and can’t be done at the site of a traffic stop.
“We cannot get that [THC content and weight] on scene,” he said. “Then we don’t have probable cause for [felony] arrest.” Suspects must be charged within 72 hours, which he indicated was not long enough to certify THC content and weight in an edible. “We can’t stop and hold somebody just because we think they’ve done something wrong.”
Releasing suspects on the chance they might return to face felony charges following a days-long lab tests would be unrealistic, he said. Consequently, “nothing gets done with that person,” Erramouspe said. “Most likely if this person has out-of-state plates, he’s not coming back.”
But legislators haven’t been able to draw a line for edibles. Some lawmakers believe it is unfair, for example, to charge a college student for felony marijuana possession for a pan of marijuana brownies in which most of the weight is not cannabis. As Reps. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) and Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) have pointed out, people would be jailed based on an amount of flour and sugar, not marijuana.
The Wyoming House earlier this year failed by a single vote to introduce an edibles bill that would have drawn the felony line at one pound. It would not consider a heavily debated and amended Senate bill. Halverson and Pelkey continued their resistance to charging based on weight at the Rock Springs committee hearing. “There’s going to be no excuse for not testing for THC content,” Halverson said.
Wyoming marijuana proponents have more daunting obstacles than gubernatorial panel reports and legislative committee hearing to wrestle with in their advocacy work. The death of 19-year-old Levy Thamba has become a persuasive rallying cry for the prohibition set. The Congolese student at Northwest College in Powell went on spring break to Colorado in March, 2014 where he ate a marijuana-infused cookie provided by a 23-year-old friend. The clerk who sold the cookie said to eat only a sixth of it at a time. Thamba, who was not known to have used marijuana before, ate a single piece, a field report from the Centers for Disease Control said. Feeling no effects after 30 to 60 minutes, he downed the rest.
“During the next 2 hours, he reportedly exhibited erratic speech and hostile behaviors,” the report said. “Approximately 3.5 hours after initial ingestion, and 2.5 hours after consuming the remainder of the cookie, he jumped off a fourth floor balcony and died from trauma. This case illustrates a potential danger associated with recreational edible marijuana use.”
Does cannabis stop cancer cells from growing? What are the financials and human costs of continued prohibition? How many persons are behind bars in Wyoming for marijuana possession? What will it take to put the medical marijuana initiative before voters — and what will the judiciary committee report to the next legislative session?
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.
CORRECTION: 2017 was originally misidentified as the target year for a medical marijuana ballot initiative — Ed.