CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A debate over whether Wyoming should legalize marijuana may be about to flare up.
Bordered to the north and south by states that have legalized some uses of marijuana, Wyoming still counts marijuana possession as a crime. Possession of anything over 3 ounces in the "Equality State" is felony territory, enough to put a person in prison for five years.
Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, said this week that she intends to introduce a bill in the legislative session that starts early next year to decriminalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Independently, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is preparing to kick off a petition drive to get an initiative that would allow full legalization of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes before state voters in 2016. The group has pressed the issue nationwide and worked on the successful decriminalization effort in Colorado.
Wallis, a rancher who started in the House in 2007, in recent sessions has opposed proposals to restrict the right of Wyoming women to seek abortion services. She's also stood up for granting equal rights to same-sex couples.
Wallis said the death a year ago of her husband, Rod McQueary, brought the issue of legalizing medical marijuana into sharp focus for her. She said he benefited greatly from medical marijuana from Colorado in his last days.
"And as a result of that experience, and the research that I've done since then, I have become absolutely convinced that basically what killed him was prescription painkillers as a result of an old horse wreck that split his pelvis and screwed up his back and never healed correctly," Wallis said.
Christine Christian of Jackson, Wyo., and a registered lobbyist for NORML, said Thursday that her group intends to submit final papers to the Secretary of State's Office this week to begin the process of collecting signatures to bring a ballot issue on marijuana decriminalization to state voters in 2016.
"Legalizing cannabis across the board, for all medical, recreational, and the use of cannabis hemp, is an economically sound decision that The United States needs to make for our economy," Christian said. She said the group intends to get more than 70,000 signatures to force the measure.
Wallis said she recently toured marijuana production and distribution facilities in Colorado. That state already allows medical marijuana and plans to allow the legal sale of the drug for recreational purposes starting Jan. 1. Of the other states bordering Wyoming, Montana also allows medical use of marijuana.
Wallis said changing attitudes toward marijuana nationally may help her convince fellow lawmakers. The coming legislative session deals primarily with budget issues and it will take a two-thirds vote to approve the introduction of her bill.
Wallis said she personally doesn't have a problem with legalizing marijuana for recreational use, but she won't push the issue in the coming session.
Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, serves on the House Judiciary Committee - a likely destination for Wallis' bill if it gets enough votes for introduction.
"In general, I would probably be for the idea, but I would have to see the specifics of the bill before I could comment for sure," Kroeker said this week.
Kroeker noted that a number of legitimate medicines can be harmful if they're abused. "And if there's ways where marijuana properly taken can help somebody out with one of their conditions, I don't see why the government should tell somebody they shouldn't have that treatment option available to them," he said.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he doesn't believe Wallis' medical marijuana bill will get enough votes for introduction.
"I think we'll have to evaluate it," Hicks said. "I think there's going to be a great scrutiny, given the history of abuse of the medical marijuana in some of the surrounding states. I think that's going to be the number one issue: how do you tighten it up. Clearly if there's an opportunity for somebody to use it, and a true medicinal purpose, I don't think anybody's opposed to that for very few people. The question is how do you control it."