GILLETTE — A small group of people gathered at Dalbey Memorial Park Saturday evening in what may be the start of a more large-scale movement toward less restrictive marijuana laws throughout Wyoming.
This weekend, kick-off events were hosted in several cities throughout Wyoming, including the Dalbey Park gathering in Gillette, to promote petitions to put marijuana initiatives on the upcoming election ballots.
Earlier this summer, two ballot initiatives received the necessary 100 co-sponsors to become certified.
Now they are beginning the signature-gathering phase. It means that petition papers for new marijuana legislation have begun circulating through Wyoming towns, in hopes of reaching the November 2022 or 2024 general election ballots.
One initiative calls for decriminalization of marijuana possession, use, cultivation and transfer. Its amendments to current drug legislation suggest reducing the fines and punishments for weed charges, while also increasing the felony possession threshold from no more than 3 ounces to up to 4 ounces.
The other calls for legalization of medical marijuana. That initiative would allow voters to approve or shoot down a plan to implement a regulated medical marijuana framework into Wyoming.
Each initiative needs to gather 41,776 petition signatures for ballot placement, which is 15 percent of the state’s registered voting population.
Frank Latta, former Gillette mayor and marijuana advocate, was at the kick-off event Saturday.
He is optimistic this marijuana movement will fare better than past efforts.
Latta is one of the initial signers and has long been involved in pushing for reformed marijuana laws in Wyoming. For this current go-around, Wyoming NORML — a pro-pot organization — and the Wyoming Libertarian Party have joined together in support of the initiatives.
“All of us are just tired of the piddly stuff, the nonviolent stuff sending people to jail,” Latta said. “And we think it’s time to end that.”
Earlier this year, a bill outlining a path to legalize recreational and medical marijuana was introduced to the state Legislature. With 12 state representatives and two senators as co-sponsors, House Bill 209 was introduced to the state House of Representatives but did not make it to the committee of the whole for consideration.
That bill outlined a comprehensive approach to implementing both recreational and medicinal marijuana throughout Wyoming.
While sharing some broad similarities, the ballot initiatives being petitioned for now are not as expansive and inclusive as the marijuana bill shot down early in its run through the state Legislature.
“This is a watered down version of that. It’s something we’ve been trying to work on for a long time,” Latta said. “The Legislature just doesn’t have a lot of appetite for it at this time.”
Which is why pro-pot advocates are doing the legwork to bring the reformed marijuana laws to the voters directly.
In last year’s general election, voters in neighboring Montana and South Dakota both got cannabis-friendlier laws approved, with Montana adding recreational legalization plans while South Dakota approved both recreational and medical.
Since then, the legalization in South Dakota has been challenged and still remains in flux.
And of course, nearby Colorado has been a leader in legalizing marijuana.
While Wyoming didn’t have any new legislation make it through this year, there have been signs that public sentiment is shifting toward legalization.
A University of Wyoming poll conducted in 2020 found that 54 percent of Wyomingites support legalizing possession of marijuana and about 85 percent support its use for medical purposes.
To make sure the petition gets in front of those in favor of legalization, Latta said signature-gatherers have been hired and will begin going door to door throughout Wyoming to get folks to put pen to paper on the initiatives.
Some area businesses also have gotten on board to host petitions, he said.
Platte Hemp Co., which opened in Gillette this summer and offers legal hemp and CBD products, is one area business that is backing the petition efforts.
But beyond that, petitions and signature-gatherers may soon be seen at community events and Gillette Avenue to get a hold of foot traffic.
In the days to come, paper petitions and signature-gatherers may begin popping up on Gillette streets and local events, chipping away one-by-one at the mountain of signatures needed to get each initiative on the ballot.
One of those on-the-ground activists will be Richard McDaniels, a 41-year-old handyman and Gillette resident who is pushing for reformed laws surrounding the substance he said helped him beat drug addiction.
“I’ve been supportive of marijuana for a long time,” McDaniels said. “It’s been my exit drug or medicine.”
He said he used to be a heavy meth and alcohol user, but that about 10 years ago, marijuana helped him kick those addictions and improve his life.
“I used to be real bad as a meth user and real bad alcoholic, and if I just have a couple hits of that marijuana, then I’m good and don’t have any cravings of methamphetamine or alcohol,” he said.
Of course, pot is not legal in any form in Wyoming, so he said he takes occasional out-of-town trips to enjoy it where he legally can, and settles for expensive medications while in town, ones he said he would not need if he could regularly use marijuana.
“If it was legal here and able to use it as a proper medicine for me, my anti-depressant pills and anxiety would dissipate, completely,” McDaniels said. “Marijuana would be my only medicine.”
Clay Cundy, a co-founder of Visionary Broadband, has his own up-close experience with medical marijuana uses through his son who suffered a severe injury in Colorado several years back.
He shared his story with the Gillette City Council back in 2016, when the council was considering a resolution opposing legalization of marijuana.
And he still holds those views almost five years later.
At about 3 p.m. on a regular Sunday afternoon, he said his son was riding a borrowed scooter — because his son’s car had been caught in a flash flood at the time — when a drunk driver pulled out in front of him. The collision caused severe injuries to his son’s brain.
He was in a coma for a week, then had to relearn how to walk and slowly recover his motor functions. Of course, given the severity of his injuries, many medications were subscribed. One of them, Cundy was skeptical of his son taking: marijuana.
Through his doctor’s orders, it was used in a prescribed and managed way that Cundy said helped his son’s recovery. Although he said marijuana is not a harmless drug, and there is always the risk that it could be abused, its medicative properties are both existent and not fully understood.
“There are too many claims that it works for everything,” Cundy said. “If you want medical marijuana to be legal, then they have to find a way for it not to look like snake oil.”
There is still a lot of research to be done on the various short-term and long-term effects, benefits and deleterious effects of marijuana use. But Cundy said that is an argument for why it should be de-stigmatized and more widely accepted in order to advance that science.
“What I’m just tired of is, why are we so backwards from the way the rest of the country is working on this stuff?” Cundy asked. “We should at least be able to have medical marijuana.”
Then there is the economic potential to consider. Cundy said the stern social conservatism in Wyoming could be stunting its opportunities to bring in businesses and population, especially those who identify as fiscally conservative, but are socially more left-leaning.
“If you can diversify your economy with something like this, then why don’t you?” Cundy asked.
This time around, Latta said a wide swath of society has popped up and showed support for the proposed changes to marijuana law.
“We’re getting so many people who want to be involved in this, we’re having to hold back a little bit. ... There’s doctors who have got a hold of us, lawyers who have got a hold of us, it’s going far better than I ever thought it would,” Latta said.
With the amount of support from volunteers and organizational efforts so far, Latta hopes the necessary signatures will be inked, and that the initiatives will be appearing on an upcoming ballot.
“It’s time to change,” Latta said. “The times are changing and it’s time Wyoming catch up and be a part of that a little bit.”