Wyoming as a whole is staunchly conservative. Sometimes one wonders why a legislator would even try to run with a “D” behind their name on the ballot. That is not to say we have lacked excellent Democratic leaders, but the blood of the state runs very red. This is a state dominated by energy production, a sense of uniquely independent national pride, and respect for nature and the dance with her that is the agricultural relationship. The extreme end of this conservative bent is seated in law enforcement. Too often Wyoming NORML hears from residents whose lives have been turned upside down by aggressive enforcement of laws designed to control a natural plant that the vast majority of people here support having access to.
Despite our doggedly conservative character, we are a caring, pragmatic, and individualistic cast. At last polling, the University of Wyoming determined that over 80% of Wyomingites support medical cannabis, and over 70% support decriminalization. The breakdown between the people and the policies seems to stem in part from these complementary but potentially deleterious qualities. While the violent treatment of cannabis consumers by the hard-right in law enforcement is well known, the “live and let live” attitude of the populace combines with fear of such force and judgmental retribution by the ultra-conservatives to keep most people from speaking up or outwardly supporting reform efforts in spite of personal convictions. Many are concerned that voicing their political opinions may yield employment conflicts. On top of much public silence, one of the loudest, hardest to ignore, and most well-funded law enforcement groups (WASCOP – Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police) actively lobbies against change at every legislative session, committee meeting, and in between. While their lobbyist is paid over $85,000 annually from their publicly funded coffer of over $2.5M to wine and dine elected officials, our board members crossed the state on their own dime to speak at the capitol about this issue that is so dear to them personally. This is the atmosphere in which Wyoming NORML seeks to raise up volunteers and alter bad laws, and neither is an easy task. For the second year in a row our focus was to prevent felony edible limits of cannabis products from being written into state law. The state attorneys group and WASCOP have been fighting hard to establish a felony punishment at the level of a 3oz edible, and they have friends in the Judiciary Committee.
We touted our lobby day for months. We encouraged every one of our supporters to volunteer on the date, to donate to our cause, and to interact with their legislators concerning marijuana law reform. We set up easy to use mailing forms to effortlessly send messages to the Judiciary Committee that would first take up the bill we had targeted for defeat. We used money donated by board members to buy hemp paper and printed off flyers personalized to each legislator expressing why the bill needed to be put to death. We also had a ream of high quality hemp paper donated to the cause which we gave to a Wyoming printer to create nice little hemp paper scratch pads with the Wyoming NORML name and logo for our volunteers to hand out as they would speak with their representatives and senators. We were ready.
Then came the horse apples in the road. Our recruited printer had a family emergency and had to leave town before completing the job. As is customary in Wyoming when travel is necessary for any pre-planned wintertime event weather interfered with roads across the state. When our board members gathered on the morning of the lobby day at the beginning of the legislative session only one loyal volunteer showed up to help; we were planning on having close to twelve. Instead of tossing the bill the committee accepted it and sent it to the Senate. Some Senators said that they had never even heard from their constituents on the topic. Then our board members had to return home. We were very discouraged. But…
At the eleventh hour a second printer in the same small Wyoming town was able to take on the task, complete it, and have the materials shipped overnight to Cheyenne where they were picked up by the one volunteer who brought them to the lobby day. In spite of the weather three of our board members were able to attend the lobby day, and one returned with support to be present for each hearing of the bill as it moved through the legislative houses. Both the Senate and House discussed the bill, and testimony was given of a legislator’s family member who illegally uses cannabis products for better health. Another stated that he had moved from a position of supporting the felony bill to one of opposition after hearing from just a single voter about the desire they had for cannabis health products. Though passed by the Senate, the bill was buried by the House and killed through neglect. For two years running a small grassroots effort and a handful of volunteers have succeeded in defeating bad bills being pushed by powerful moneyed interests.
Let this encourage you. Though few in open numbers and lacking much financial support we have been able to urge people and legislators sufficiently so as to move cannabis policy in the right direction in this religiously “Right” state each year since we have been organized as a focused group. We are picking up members and interest is growing because people are seeing that change can be made and that speaking up without serious reprisal is possible. People are influencing the minds of their legislators for the good of the movement and the health of our society. This shows why interaction between voters and elected officials is so important as to be incapable of being understated. We will see sensible cannabis policy in Wyoming, and with work from motivated citizens your state can as well.
Bennett Sondeno is the Treasurer of WY NORML