Will Wyoming voters override politicians to legalize marijuana?
Thirty years ago, Kemmerer native Madonna Long’s life changed forever.
Long, then a senior at Kemmerer High School, was one of 38 passengers in a school bus returning from a ski club trip in Utah. The driver lost control, resulting in a devastating accident that killed two people.
Long was critically injured in the crash, leaving her paralyzed and prone to spasms.
Eventually, she turned to medical marijuana to treat her spasms. Since then, Long has become a leading advocate for medical marijuana legalization. That includes her home state of Wyoming, one of just 13 states without medicinal or decriminalized cannabis.
Long was among several dozen people to deliver paperwork to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office on June 11 announcing their intent to pursue two ballot initiatives to legalize medical cannabis and decriminalize its recreational use.
If successful, the signature drive would allow Wyoming voters to decide whether they want to pursue legalization, rather than leaving it up to the Wyoming Legislature. Several legislative attempts have stalled out.
Advocates say it will be a significant victory for cannabis-using patients in a state that currently prescribes some of the nation’s strictest penalties for users, particularly as Wyoming is now surrounded by states that have already legalized its use.
“Medical marijuana has been such a great treatment for a lot of people like me and people all around Wyoming,” Long said. “This is a people’s act, and the people will pass this.”
Advocates likely face an uphill battle. Ballot initiatives are notoriously difficult to pass in Wyoming, which maintains high signature requirement thresholds. To make the ballot, petitioners must gather a number of signatures equal to 15 percent of voters who voted in the previous election in at least 15 counties. Those signatures then must be verified and, ultimately, affirmed by state elections officials.
Wyoming has failed to even consider a ballot initiative — much less pass one — in roughly three decades.
The task will likely be more difficult in 2022. After the record turnout for the 2020 presidential election, a ballot initiative effort will now require nearly 42,000 signatures statewide to be successful, approximately 38-percent more than were required after the 2016 and 2018 elections.
Unlike efforts by local activists to get marijuana on the ballot in 2016 and 2018, however, advocates will have help this time around. In addition to longstanding marijuana advocacy groups like NORML, the effort will be assisted with backing from the National Libertarian Party as well as groups like the Utah-based organization Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE — which helped advance a medical marijuana program there.
The leaders of both organizations attended the Cheyenne rally on June 11.
Nationally, the ballot initiative approach has been the most successful method for legalization. Of the 36 states to legalize medical marijuana, 19 did so through citizen-initiated ballot measures, while 13 of the 17 states to legalize recreational marijuana accomplished legalization through a ballot measure.
Apollo Pazell, a political consultant working with the Libertarian National Committee, said the party plans to offer legal and institutional support for the ballot initiative, as well as assistance in organizing several political action committees committed to galvanizing public support for the measure. These PACs, he said, will target groups like law enforcement, patients and political organizations.
“All we’re doing is providing support to what they are doing,” Pazell said. “They will do all the political work involved in building the campaign. They’ll do all the radio ads, all that stuff. We’re just going to be supporting door knockers and canvassers to make sure it gets on the ballot.”
Advocates believe there is sufficient support to pass the measure should it get on the ballot. A December 2020 poll conducted by the University of Wyoming showed a significant majority of Wyoming voters in support of legalizing medical cannabis, with a slim majority in support of its use for recreational purposes. And in the 2021 legislative session, a legalization effort led by a tripartisan coalition in the Wyoming Legislature managed to pass committee before ultimately failing.
Freshman Rep. Marshall Burt, L-Green River, a co-sponsor of the failed House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana, said that outcome helped prompt advocates to pursue a ballot initiative.
“The Legislature knows that this is coming,” he said at the rally. “During the session when we talked about the bill, we let them know if we didn’t pass [HB] 209 that the next measure was to take the ballot initiative to the people.”
The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, which has previously run public awareness campaigns arguing there is “No Debate” about marijuana use, said it is likely to revive similar initiatives to counter the legalization effort.
“We have not had a conversation on the new initiatives, yet,” WASCOP director Byron Oedekoeven wrote in an email. “I would imagine we will again offer factual education material as we have in the past around the harmful effects and the newer style of marijuana products.”
Proponents for legalization are confident in their ability to gather the necessary signatures in time for the 2022 election cycle.
“We will have people on the streets. And we will collect signatures,” Burt said. “And then when the time comes at the next election cycle for 2022, we will allow the citizens of Wyoming to carry their voice, either in support or against.”
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