SHERIDAN — A Wyoming-based chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is working to legalize cannabis in the state by 2016. The question of reforming the state’s marijuana laws is under whole-hearted scrutiny partly because the road has been paved by neighboring states.
While both Colorado and Montana have legalized medical marijuana for years, Colorado became the second state in the union, behind Washington, to legalize the drug for recreational use Jan. 1. While the long-term societal changes within the state have yet to play out, the immediate policy change reverberates beyond Colorado borders, and manifests as hope for those in favor of legalized marijuana. Yet some fear and dread the introduction of another intoxicant into mainstream society.
Wyoming NORML Executive Director Chris Christian of Jackson is one of many pro-cannabis Wyomingites. She said current policies are archaic and wasteful, but admits that her cause is an uphill battle in the Cowboy State.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t understand why it’s illegal in the first place,” Christian said. “It’s so the rich man can get richer.”
Christian said she believes the history of the national ban on marijuana had more to do with big businessmen attempting to corner manufacturing markets, a job that would be easier without competition from hemp products. She said today’s policies echo the corrupt corporate interests that founded them via a criminal justice and prison system of unprecedented size.
“We’ve got way too many young men wasting away in a private prison system that puts them out for hire,” Christian said. “That’s slavery. It’s bigotry, it’s racism and it’s wrong. It’s costing us way too much to be bigots.”
Christian said today’s corporate interests have changed slightly, but are still driven by law enforcement unions and the medical industry to keep business booming, either via continued work for law enforcers and jailers or a monopoly on medical enterprise.
While Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, plans to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would allow for the use of medicinal marijuana in the case of a few rare and specific medical conditions, Christian isn’t hopeful.
“If it were mine, I would bury it,” Christian said. “It has no teeth at all. We want the full ride.”
Sheridanite Adam Born agrees the medical introduction of marijuana is a foot in the door for full-scale legalization.
“I have always hoped for cannabis reform. Cannabis prohibition was a failed policy based on lies,” Born said.
Born, who describes himself as a family man, and outdoors man and a valued employee, is a new deputy for Wyoming NORML and is acting as a local organizer for marijuana policy reform on a state level.
“When I first heard the rumors of a group working to reform the cannabis laws for Wyoming I had to find out more,” he said.
“This cause is about more than just smoking pot. It’s about
improving Wyoming and reminding people of the democracy we live in.
Where we have the right and obligation to make our states and our
country work for common people,” Born said.
Wyoming NORML has submitted a draft petition to state officials. After the wording of the document is finalized, the group will embark on a campaign to collect signatures. If enough signatures are compiled, the legalization initiative will be put up for public vote.
The group is also working to recruit an online network of supporters and activist. Born said hundreds of people from the Sheridan area have signed up to volunteer to further marijuana legalization efforts.
“This cause is about more than just smoking pot,” Born said. “It’s about improving Wyoming and reminding people of the democracy we live in. We have the right and obligation to make our states and our
country work for common people.”
The next event for Wyoming NORML will be a march in Cheyenne Feb. 10. Born said he plans to bring a group from Sheridan to attend. Born is currently organizing and hosting public discussions. Interested parties can contact Wyoming NORML online and via Facebook.
A Wyoming-based movement to legalize cannabis brings with it an air of enthusiasm and in light of the genuine possibility to drastically change a long standing social policy. While marijuana is often propped up as an innocent casualty of misguided public policies, most people are quick to admit there are huge potential risks.
“People use substances because there’s a perceived benefit,” explained Sydney Rowe, a Community Prevention Specialist with the state’s Prevention Management Organization. “At some point, for some people, it becomes unhealthy.”
While marijuana advocates frequently argue cannabis does not present the severe physical withdrawal symptoms commonly associated with illegal street drugs, Rowe it’s not entirely accurate to assert it’s completely non habit forming.
Rowe is a licensed clinical social worker who worked with substance abuse clients for eight years. She said the line between physical and psychological addiction is blurred.
“I think the addictive process (of cannabis) is different in your brain, but you still see people who are very reliant,” Rowe said. “They use the drug to get through social situations or to cope. When people stop using when they have been using steadily, there is a brain response like depression.“
Sheridan Police Department Chief Richard Adriaens also disputes that marijuana is any safer than other substances.
“We know it’s less addictive than heroine or methamphetamine,” he said. “People have all types of addictions, and an addictive personality is going to find that.”
Adriaens said his primary concern is the potential collateral damage that will result with the inevitable increase in use rates if marijuana is legalized.
“As a citizen, not as police chief, I see the issues we have with alcohol alone, which are a tremendous cost to this country and damaging to our youth, and I think marijuana is only going to add to that,” he said, indicating nationwide figures show that for every dollar of revenue generated by alcohol and tobacco, $10 are lost in social costs, including legal regulation, medical care and accidents.
In addition to the easy availability to the adult population, Adriaens said the evidence points to the fact juvenile use will inevitably increase. He said statistics out of Colorado show teenagers testing positive for cannabis increased between 30 and 50 percent after medical marijuana became widely available in the state.
“Until your brain is fully developed, any substance is going to have a negative impact on your ability to learn,” Rowe said, indicating that the human brain isn’t considered to be fully developed until some time between the ages of 18 and 25, depending on the person.
Adriaens is convinced even present legal medical marijuana is marketed to kids via colorful, cartoonish graphics and strains names like Skywalker, Palmer Poison, Bubble Gum Kush and Earwax.
Adriaens also said he feels that the public perception that marijuana incurs significant public costs with little public benefit are misguided.
“When you talk about law enforcement time, I can tell you we don’t really concentrate on marijuana at all. We run into it almost entirely incidentally,” he said, elaborating most of his department’s arrests for marijuana possession were instigated by other circumstances — a traffic stop or incident response.
“If more people are going to use it, our costs are going to go up in order to deal with that,” Adriaens said. “It may not be to arrest them for possession of that, but they’re still doing other things that are going to have us have to deal with them, just like alcohol.
“Whether it’s legal or illegal, we’re still contacting these people and we have to assume their intoxication is at least part of the reason we’re showing up there,” Adriaens said. “We need to make sure the facts are what they are rather than guess at what may be happening.”
“The government’s job is to do the people’s business,” he continued, adding the ultimate decision regarding whether marijuana is legalized in Wyoming falls on the people of the state.
“I’m not saying everybody’s crazy for thinking about this. I see the logic behind it, but it’s not the simple, easy substance people believe it is. It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Adriaens said. “There’s no one I know that would want to keep a cancer patient from finding relief in whatever way they can. I just think there are probably better ways to do it.”
Proponents on both sides of the table agree more dialogue is needed.
“The best thing you can do right now is to talk to your friends
and family about cannabis,” Born said.
Adriaens agreed any collective consensus should be well vetted.
“My concern is, are we all set for what this would cause us?”