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Marijuana in Wyoming

Dec 27, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Once unthinkable, it's now about to be debated in the Legislature

Wyoming voters have been tipped off to what promises to be one of the most intriguing legislative debates in Wyoming history. A member of the Wyoming House of Representatives intends to introduce a bill that would legalize the use of marijuana in Wyoming for medical purposes.

There was a time not long ago that such a prospect would have been unthinkable in this state. No more. With medical marijuana already prescribed, sold and regulated in Colorado to the south and Montana to the north, and with Colorado set to begin sales of marijuana as a retail product in 2014, a new set of facts must be faced by Wyoming.

It is a simple certainty that residents of our state already are traveling to bordering states to receive marijuana as a medical prescription. In case you didn't realize it, it usually is not difficult at all to get a medical prescription for marijuana.

Now, with Colorado preparing to sell marijuana in roughly the same way that cigarettes are sold, many more Wyoming residents will be traveling across state lines to the south to buy marijuana for recreational use.

Many people in our state don't like this and do not plan to partake of it themselves. As a political issue, it is not viewed as widely popular. We don't really know for sure, but it looks as if we are about to find out. (In addition to the planned legislation, a marijuana advocacy group has announced plans to put legalized pot on the ballot in Wyoming by 2016.)

Could a marijuana bill stand a chance in our legislature? State representative Sue Wallis, a Republican from Campbell County, says she will be the primary sponsor, and other lawmakers have said they would at least welcome the discussion.

Is there truly a public health factor in Wyoming that could be addressed by medical marijuana? Amid the implementation of "Obamacare," discussions of expanding Medicaid or not, and discussions of creating Wyoming's own health insurance exchange, would medical marijuana have a valid place in our state's changing health care conversation?

Is there an economic factor at play as well? Could the sale of medical marijuana form a tax-based revenue stream that could benefit Wyoming? Does the state lose revenue when travelers spend time, spend money for gasoline, spend money for meals, and spend money on purchases in addition to medical marijuana when they travel to one of our neighboring states?

And how much will those economic concerns increase when recreational marijuana is available as close as Fort Collins, Colo.?

Is the use of marijuana still a big enough deal -- negatively -- that Wyoming ought to keep worrying about it? We already are a state with a higher rate of tobacco use than most others, and we have well-documented problems with illegal drugs, and a nagging alcohol problem as well. Many is the expert who will claim that marijuana is safer than cigarettes for smoking, and that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol when used habitually.

We make neither of those arguments here today, but it must be recognized that they are being made elsewhere and apparently are going to be made on the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives.

The coming session of the Legislature is the shorter budget session, so it is unlikely that this bill would get as full a hearing as it would during the longer general session, the next of which is in 2015. This might be a trial run, with the fuller effort to follow a year later.

Whenever and however the legislative process involving legalized marijuana in some form takes place in Wyoming, our red-state conservatism will be contrasted sharply with this new subject matter. However it plays out, we are sure to be viewed as one of the nation's most fascinating test cases.

Get used to this, Wyoming. The lid is about to be lifted on legalized marijuana. It's doubtful that it ever will close fully again.

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Legislature, Wyoming