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Wyoming Activists Prepare Cannabis Reform Initiatives

Wyoming activist are pushing for the passage of two bills to overhaul cannabis policy. The first is to legalize cannabis and the second reduces penalties for marijuana-related crimes.

Wyoming is not among 12 states to have passed legislation to legalize medical marijuana. This despite the fact that data from University of Wyoming indicates that most Wyomingites support reforming cannabis and that 85 percent of Wyoming residents are in favor of legalizing medicinal cannabis. A bill to examine medical marijuana was killed in Wyoming’s House of Representatives last year. Another measure to legalize or regulate cannabis failed to receive a hearing. 

Two Ballot Proposals by Activists

Due to the legislature’s inability to pass cannabis legislation, the Libertarian Party of Wyoming is leading the campaign for two ballot initiatives to reform marijuana policy in the state. While the first would legalize medicinal marijuana, the second proposal would decrease penalties for those who violate cannabis laws. 

An initiative to legalize marijuana in Wyoming must be qualified by organizers. They will need to gather enough signatures for at least 15% of the votes cast during the 2020 general elections. The high voter turnout in that election was due in large part to the highly-contested presidential race. The initiative campaign is also required to collect signatures from 15 percent of voters in at least two-thirds of Wyoming’s 23 counties.

Around 278,000 voters voted in the 2020 general election. This means that activists will need to gather more than 41,000 voter signatures to ensure their initiative is eligible to vote in the 2024 election. The required signatures can be collected within an 18 month period. This gives organizers of cannabis legalization measures until January 23rd to complete the requirements.

After collecting signatures from registered voters, organizers will need to send petitions to Secretary of State to verify their efforts. If there are enough registered voters who have signed, these successful measures can be placed on the ballot. 

Organizers say that this year’s election is too soon to collect enough signatures for the 2022 ballot. They are instead hoping to qualify the proposed measures for the 2024 general elections. Apollo Pazell was the chief strategist at the Libertarian Party and told reporters that they have collected around 30 percent of required signatures so far.

“Everything seems to be on pace,” Pazell said.

This is not an easy task

Wyoming’s requirements to qualify a voter initiative for the ballot are among the most strict in the nation, according to election information website Ballotpedia. This makes it a less-used way to pass state legislation.

“The ballot initiatives are not as common here as they are in other states,” Ryan Frost, public information officer for the state Legislative Service Office, told Caspar Star-Tribune.

Mario Presutti, campaign organizer said most Wyomingns support reforming cannabis policies in Wyoming and sign both petitions. However, when it is appropriate, volunteers give preference to the medical marijuana initiative. It now has around five percent more signed petitions than the initiative for reducing cannabis penalties.

“We think that the patients need to be first,” Pazell said. “This has proven to be an invaluable medication for so many patients… that is being withheld for political reasons.”

The legalization of cannabis has been supported by approximately 1,100 Sheridan County residents, Wyoming, over the past three-months. Chief Travis Koltiska from the Sheridan Police Department advised voters to make sure they understand what they were voting for at the polls.

“This has been a discussion across the state for many years, and there is language trying to sway people on both sides of the issue,” Koltiska told the Sheridan Press. ”When people look at this petition, they need to educate themselves on the facts. It might bring some positive things, and it might also lead to some negative things. It’s a complicated issue from our perspective.”

Koltiska acknowledged “there are substances that have proven to have medical benefits” in cannabis, although he is also concerned that cannabis legalization could lead to drug abuse and crime.

“The potential legalization of marijuana for medical use is concerning because there is potential for abuse of any substance that impairs cognitive ability,” Koltiska said. “It’s the same thing with alcohol. If alcohol wasn’t already legal, I’m not sure I would support legalization efforts based on what we see day-to-day in our department. Over 80 percent of our arrests are alcohol and drug-related, and it is difficult to be supportive of something that has the potential for serious abuse.”

Keith Goodenough is a Wyoming Democratic State Senator who tried to introduce cannabis reform legislation early in 2000s, but was blocked by more conservative politicians. He predicts that the right will oppose activists even more this time.

“The fundamentalist candidates have consistently taken a position against cannabis,” he said. “(There are) many more fundamentalist legislators in there now than there used to be.”