Activists in Wyoming are circulating petitions for two ballot measures to reform cannabis policy in the state, including one to legalize medical marijuana and a second to reduce penalties for cannabis-related crimes.
Wyoming is one of about a dozen states that have not yet passed laws to legalize cannabis in some form, despite data from the University of Wyoming that shows a majority of residents support cannabis reform and 85 percent support legalizing medical cannabis. Last year, a bill to study medical marijuana and another measure to legalize and regulate cannabis died in the Wyoming House of Representatives without a hearing, despite both measures gaining the approval of the House Judiciary Committee.
Activists Advance Two Ballot Proposals
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. The first proposal would legalize the medicinal use of cannabis, while the second would reduce the penalties for cannabis offenses.
To qualify an initiative to legalize cannabis for the ballot in Wyoming, organizers will have to collect enough signatures to total 15 percent of the vote cast in the 2020 general election, when voter turnout was particularly high because of the hotly 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.
Approximately 278,000 people voted in the general election in 2020, meaning that activists will have to collect more than 41,000 qualified voter signatures for each initiative to qualify for the 2024 election. Initiative campaigns are given an 18-month window to collect the required signatures, setting a deadline for the cannabis legalization measure organizers until January 23 to meet the requirement.
After collecting signatures, organizers are required to submit petitions to the office of the Secretary of State for verification. If enough signatures from registered voters have been collected, the successful measures will be added to the ballot and passed into law if approved by a majority of voters.
Organizers say that this year’s election is too soon to collect enough signatures for the 2022 ballot. So instead, they hope to qualify the measures for the 2024 general election. Apollo Pazell, chief strategist for the national Libertarian Party, told reporters that the campaign has so far collected about 30 percent of necessary signatures.
“Everything seems to be on pace,” Pazell said.
Not an Easy Proposition
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. As a result, it is a little-used method of passing legislation in the state.
“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.
Campaign organizer Mario Presutti said that most people who support the effort to reform cannabis policy in Wyoming sign both petitions. But when appropriate, volunteers prioritize the medical cannabis initiative, which now has about five percent more signatures than the initiative to reduce 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.”
Over the past three months, approximately 1,100 residents of Sheridan County, Wyoming have signed cannabis legalization petitions. Chief Travis Koltiska of the Sheridan Police Department warned voters to be sure they know what they are supporting at the ballot box.
“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. Because some good things might come of it, but some bad things might as well. 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, a former Wyoming Democratic state senator, tried to pass cannabis reform legislation in the early 2000s but was thwarted by more conservative politicians. He predicted that activists will face even more opposition from the right this time around.
“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.”