By Leo Wolfson, state political reporter
In a forum held in Cody Thursday morning, Republican gubernatorial candidates Gov. Mark Gordon and Brent Bien said they would not rule out approving medical marijuana if legislation came before them, legalizing the substance.
“I think I would be willing to look at the research,” Gordon said.
During the forum, Gordon expressed more openness to legalizing medical marijuana than Bien. The governor said he already considered some information presented to him in 2018 by a group of senior citizens advocating for the substance.
Rax Rammell, another candidate in the race, did not attend the forum where a number of different issues were discussed.
Although he’s “not particularly interested” in legalizing medicinal use of the leafy substance, Gordon said, if a health benefit could be determined for prescribed use of the plant, he’d consider it.
Legalizing medical marijuana in Wyoming would require passage of a law through the State Legislature. If such a law were to pass, it would become the decision of the governor whether to sign or veto the bill.
Bien was more hesitant on offering any commitment to future approval, but said he wouldn’t rule it out altogether. In an interview with Cowboy State Daily after the forum, Bien said he would not approve legislation legalizing medical marijuana if it came before him today, but would consider legislation if it was brought before him in the future.
Both candidates said they would oppose the legalization of recreational marijauna.
“We just won’t do it,” Bien said, adding that although it is his goal to make Wyoming the most free state in the nation, he would make an exception to that effort when it comes to marijuana. “We’ve seen what it brings into California, Colorado, all the surrounding states that have brought this in.”
Montana, Wyoming’s neighbor to the north, legalized recreational marijuana in 2020. In an unexpected move made through its state legislature in July, Minnesota became the 20th state to approve recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana is legal in 27 states.
Medicinal and recreational use of the drug is still illegal on a federal level.
Bien tied the legalization of marijuana to homelessness, and described this movement as an effort to target the middle class.
The effort to legalize marijuana in Wyoming has been ongoing, but hasn’t gained enough signatures to have a question put before the voters in a ballot initiative. A 2020 University of Wyoming survey found that 54% of state residents support legalizing marijuana for personal use – up from 37% in the same survey in 2014. The recent survey also found that 85% of Wyoming residents support legalization of medical marijuana.
The Wyoming Department of Health has instructed the state’s substance abuse prevention specialists to remain neutral on the topic.
Medical marijuana has gained more support from state legislators in recent years, with a few Republicans even expressing verbal support. Bills decriminalizing cannabis and legalizing medical marijuana were proposed in this year’s legislature, but neither gained much traction.
A study conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health found that teenage marijuana users have a twice as high likelihood of being addicted to marijuana than they would for nicotine, alcohol, and, in most categories of users, even prescription drug misusers. The addiction rate was as high as 20% among those who had used more than three years, and double the rate of alcohol in all categories.
“At the end, it’s about our kids,” Bien said.
A 2017 National Academy of Sciences study found evidence that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.
The study also found those who used cannabis prior to driving increased their risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident and in states where cannabis use is legal, there is an increased risk of unintentional cannabis overdose among children.
Gordon mentioned how there are many farmers legally growing hemp in Wyoming, and how the state needs to work on developing a clear level of legal potency for this fabric.
“If we have farmers who are saying … ‘we want to be able to produce hemp because it’s good for building materials, because it’s good for a number of other things,’ we want to try to figure out how we can enable them to be able to produce the hemp, do it legally and safely,” Gordon said.
The candidates also gave their thoughts on U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and her actions on the Jan. 6 Committee.
Gordon said he would not have made the decision Cheney did to support and participate in the Jan. 6 Committee. He said this committee is disrespectful to the separation of powers in the U.S. government.
“I do think I would have taken a different position if I were in her position,” he said.
Bien described the Jan. 6 Committee as a “partisan” group and their efforts part of a “witch hunt.” The committee is mostly made up of Democrats, besides Cheney and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
Bien also briefly alluded to the recent raid of former President Donald Trump’s home in Florida.
“We see this going around the nation now and we have to wonder why,” he said.
Gordon said the country needs to move forward and focus on achieving goals that address the Republican Party platform. He expressed confidence a Republican will win the 2024 presidential election.
“They are(Republican platforms) lost by getting mixed up by this other issue,” he said.
In a brief interview with Cowboy State Daily after the forum, Gordon said the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was “a very dark day for our country,” but also an example of how people have lost trust in their government.
Bien expressed skepticism about the event’s origins. A veteran of the military, he has had first-hand experiences with coups and insurrections in other countries.
“We do know though that there were some instigators down there that were there trying to get this thing done,” he said. “Hopefully one day the facts come out. I think we’ll see clarity, if we can actually get to the bottom of it.”
He criticized the inconsistent pattern of federal arrests, still taking place, of people who attended the event. On July 12, a 69-year old female cancer patient from Idaho was sentenced to 60 days in jail for entering the U.S. Capitol and taking video during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Bien said humans have played a “negligible” role in causing climate change and said “God controls the climate.” He sees hypocrisy in those looking to cut carbon emissions because of climate change. Many people from this movement do not want U.S. coal, some of the cleanest burning in the world, exported to China. That country has much lower emission standards for its coal.
In the past, Gordon has described climate change as a major threat. He said on Thursday Wyoming needs to be “an all of the above energy state.” He said the future of addressing climate change must come through re-adapting fossil fuel industries.
Gordon mentioned new energy approaches, such as carbon dioxide flooding and the carbon capturing employed at the Dave Johnson Plant outside Casper, as a way to continue fossil fuel production while expanding into green energy.
“We can’t get rid of fossil fuels but we can make sure they keep getting invested in,” he said.
Gordon said venture capitalists have turned their focus to wind energy, which he said is “screwing up the entire (energy) marketplace.”
Gordon has leaned into his experience as governor as a reason for his reelection. Bien has said the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was one of his main inspirations in running for governor.
Gordon and Bien share many of the same policies, although Bien leans slightly more conservative on certain issues.
Gordon has defended his handling of the pandemic in the past and expressed pride that Wyoming was able to fully open its schools for the entire 2021/2022 school year. He said about half of Wyoming’s CARES Act funding, government money disbursed for pandemic relief, went to small businesses, with the other half going to schools and farm programs. On Thursday, he also promoted the efforts he made to try and open Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks early on in the pandemic.
“If you remember one thing from this, remember that I have a proven track record of standing up to protect your rights against the federal government,” he said.