Conservative Republicans with a Libertarian streak and moderates on the House Judiciary Committee united Tuesday morning to approve a bill to lessen the penalties for possession of minor amounts of marijuana.
Or “marihuana,” as House Bill 29 refers to the drug. The measure, sponsored by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), cleared the panel on a 7-2 vote and will go next to the entire House on first reading. Only Reps. Sam Krone (R-Cody) and Rep. Bill Pownall (R-Gillette) voted against the bill.
In his presentation to the committee, Byrd’s main point was that currently the punishment doesn’t fit a non-violent crime. HB 29 doesn’t decriminalize pot possession, he said, but initially takes it from a criminal matter to a civil one in which an offender receives a ticket instead of having to deal with the criminal justice system.
Byrd said a felony conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana can have a devastating effect on a young person’s life, because it makes it very difficult to obtain employment.
“I could fill this room with a bunch of young people who are now felons, and their prospects for life are now just trashed,” he told the panel. “All the way from 4.0 students who were going to college, to star athletes, to the average kid down the street.
“Prosecuting someone for possessing marijuana can cost up to $10,000, for an amount that’s worth only a couple of hundred bucks,” Byrd explained. “The question is for all of you who are judicious and fiscally prudent, is that a good return on [our] investment?”
Byrd noted since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, many Wyoming residents go to our southern neighbor to buy pot. Discovery of any amount, even what remains in an ashtray, can result in an arrest here. “I don’t think someone should have their lives ruined because they forgot to empty their ashtray,” Byrd said.
Other states bordering Wyoming either have medical marijuana or are considering it, he noted. “In a very short period of time Wyoming will be like an island surrounded, without some sort of comprehensive changes in its marijuana law,” he said.
Byrd proposed a fine of $50 for the first and second offenses of possessing less than one ounce, and $100 for having up to an ounce. Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) successfully amended the bill to quintuple those penalties to $250 and $500, respectively.
“I’m not very comfortable with just slapping someone on the wrist with a $50 fine,” Baker said. “But I don’t think they should go to jail.”
Byrd said enforcing penalties for minor amounts of marijuana places a burden on law enforcement, which has to spend two or three hours to process someone who is arrested. Byrd said that takes police officers off the road and negatively impacts their ability to protect their communities and enforce laws against crimes that are much more detrimental to society.
Currently, possession of up to a half-ounce can result in up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Two law enforcement representatives at the meeting spoke against HB 29. Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Sam Powell asked, “By lessening the penalties, what message are we sending to the criminal enterprise that’s on the front end [of drug trafficking], not the person who has that small amount? In my opinion, you’re inadvertently bolstering that criminal enterprise.”
The colonel added, “If you remove the consequences for making a mistake, are you really enabling them to make the same mistake, absent any detriment to that effect?” Powell said.
Rep. Ken Esquibel (D-Cheyenne) maintained when a state legalizes marijuana, like Colorado did, it naturally lessens the black market for the drug.
Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for making marijuana possession a low priority. “I’m disappointed [President Barack Obama’s] administration has decided to choose which laws they will enforce,” he said.
But Byrd said lawmakers must respond to changes in societal attitudes. He noted alcohol was another illegal drug in the U.S., but pressure from people who thought the law was unfair ended Prohibition.
Ryan Frost of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said a statewide poll conducted by the University of Wyoming showed 72 percent supported legalizing medical marijuana to help relieve chronic pain for cancer and other diseases.
Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), a lawyer and member of the committee, said jailing marijuana offenders costs the state more than $1.3 million per year.
Four far-right GOP legislators — Reps. Marti Halverson (R-Etna), David Miller (R-Riverton), Kendell Kroeker (R-Casper) and Baker — voted in favor of HB 29. So did Democrats Esquibel and Pelkey.