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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
The Cheyenne City Council may become the first in the state to consider decriminalization of marijuana if it discusses a proposal brought by the council’s president, Richard Johnson, during a meeting next week.
Johnson said he plans to bring a new ordinance proposal that would reduce the city’s drug paraphernalia laws from about seven pages to two paragraphs.
The proposal would affect people found with less than 3 ounces of marijuana in city limits, but would retain laws for all other controlled substances and still prohibit delivery and intent to deliver marijuana in all circumstances. Specific details about quantity and potential fines associated with those found in possession of the drug still need to be ironed out.
Johnson told Cowboy State Daily his primary motivation to propose decriminalization is to save Wyoming’s capital city money on superfluous fines and attorney fees.
He said marijuana charges are usually lesser offenses among a “grocery list of charges” thrown out in court anyway under plea deals, which he believes creates unnecessary municipal court processing fees and attorney expenses.
“It will save money on prosecution,” he said. “If people actually take their charges to court, the city must pay its prosecuting attorney to handle those cases.”
The matter can become even more expensive if a defendant demands a jury trial, Johnson said.
Johnson also cited what he believes are medicinal benefits of the drug in fighting health issues like glaucoma and pain relief.
He said he knows many Cheyenne residents, including pastors, who travel south to Colorado to buy marijuana legally there, then come back to Wyoming to ingest the drug where it’s illegal.
Johnson wants people to know when they are back in Cheyenne city limits, they won’t be criminals for ingesting what they legally bought elsewhere.
But he also said police officers who find people in possession of marijuana in Cheyenne city limits would still be able to charge them with a state offense, although this process would take considerably more paperwork than it does now as a municipal violation.
Although the Cheyenne Police Department is formally neutral on the issue, Johnson said he’s heard private opposition to decriminalizing marijuana from the department.
Johnson said decriminalization does not equate to a legalization of marijuana and he sees that as a completely different issue the Wyoming Legislature must address.
Not Likely To Pass
Johnson said he doesn’t expect his proposal to pass. He’s aware of only one other member of the nine-member council that supports the measure, Scott Roybal.
Mayor Patrick Collins casts a 10th vote, if needed, and Johnson said he doesn’t expect him to support decriminalizing pot in the city.
But it’s possible Johnson may have more support than he realizes.
A majority of Wyoming residents have supported legalization of marijuana in recent polls and council member Ken Esquibel told Cowboy State Daily he’ll support the proposal.
“I think some of these misdemeanors are better handled by an issuance of a ticket rather than a summons,” he said. “Our municipal court is bogged down by some of these minimal crimes where they weren’t hurting anyone but themselves.”
For Johnson, a healthy discussion on the issue is his primary goal.
He said residents have been contacting him about the issue since 2015, and he’d like to bring the matter to a point of “finality” by telling them it was discussed.
He expects a large crowd of pro-marijuana people to attend Wednesday’s meeting, but he also wants opponents as well to create a semblance of balance on the issue. Johnson added that he said he expects a few state legislators will also be there.
“What’s awesome is that it opens up the discussion,” he said.
A discussion on decriminalization isn’t guaranteed, however, and would require at least one other member to support a motion to talk about the proposal, but Johnson doesn’t expect that to be a major hurdle.
There have been a few recent attempts in the Wyoming Legislature to decriminalize and legalize marijuana at various levels, but none have come close to passing.
From 2021-2022, an effort also was made to bring a ballot question to voters to legalize medical marijuana and another to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Wyoming marijuana advocacy group Wyoming NORML announced earlier this month that although its staff collected enough signatures to meet statewide thresholds for each initiative, they fell short of a requirement that gathered petitions must also meet minimum percentages in two-thirds of the state’s counties.
In a March 1 press release, the organization said it will “continue to work with legislators over the upcoming session to bring bills to the floor that utilize the language of each initiative.”
Johnson said members of the Casper City Council also have expressed interest in the topic and told him they would consider decriminalization if Cheyenne were to pass a measure first.
To date, 21 states have fully legalized recreational marijuana. In February, the Marijuana Policy Project reported that 31 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized the substance, but only two have not legalized the drug in any form.
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. That survey also found that 85% of Wyoming residents support legalization of medical marijuana.
Johnson said the city is prohibited under state law from putting out its own opinion poll on the matter.
He said he would rather take the lead from more conservative-leaning states like Nebraska and Utah than Colorado. He mentioned how the city of Wichita, Kansas, recently passed its own marijuana decriminalization.
In 2022, President Joe Biden said he will issue pardons to everyone convicted of the federal crime of simple marijuana possession while calling for governors to make similar moves under their state laws.
Wednesday’s city council meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Johnson said the matter will be brought up again March 27. If it passes a second reading, which he doesn’t expect, the matter will be brought to a final vote at one more meeting before becoming new law for the city of Cheyenne.
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