Is Wyoming caught in Colorado’s hotbox?

 

A 24-year-old Albany County man rose from the chair beside his attorney, approached the podium and cleared his throat before addressing the judge.

His face was flushed. As he spoke, his voice cracked and trembled, echoing out into the gallery of the nearly-empty courtroom.

“Seven months ago, I was arrested for marijuana,” the man began.

The arrest was a “wakeup call,” the man said, leaving him with two options: To let the incident “define and break” him, or to “become a better human being.”

In the intervening months, the man strived to make the latter option a reality, he said. He complied with the court’s orders, remained clean since his arrest and attended counseling sessions regularly.

The man was one of three sentenced for marijuana-related felony convictions Dec. 18 in Albany County District Court.

Local authorities suspect the number of people in their position is likely to increase — especially given regional attitudes toward marijuana.

A year after Colorado legalized retail marijuana — and roughly four years since The Centennial State green-lighted the commercial distribution of medical marijuana — most local authorities said the number of people charged with marijuana offenses in southern Wyoming is on the rise.

Much of the drug, which remains illicit under both Wyoming and federal law, is flowing into the state from legal retail dispensaries in Colorado — the closest of which are within about 35 miles of Wyoming’s southern border.

This interchange between the two states — Wyoming, ranked among the strictest for marijuana law, and Colorado, one of the most lenient — has added emphasis to the debate about how best to handle cannabis locally.

Some argue decriminalization would be a good first step on the path toward legalization. Others contend such a path would open the floodgates for more cannabis use and driving under the influence dangers, as well as pave the way for increased usage of harder drugs, such as methamphetamine and heroin.

The numbers

Because of the way law enforcement agencies record drug-related arrests, comprehensive statistics on local marijuana offenses aren’t available. Before 2014, drug offenses were logged as possession of a controlled substance, but weren’t broken down by the specific type of substance, said Laramie Police Department Cmdr. Mitch Cushman.

However, data gleaned from numerous records requests from various local law enforcement agencies helps paint a partial picture of local marijuana incidents before and after Colorado legalization.

The most striking data comes from Wyoming Highway Patrol, which provided numbers on felony and misdemeanor marijuana seizures from 2010-2014.

In 2010, Highway Patrol logged 62 misdemeanor marijuana seizures in Albany County. That number marched up each following year. In 2013, Highway Patrol counted 181 misdemeanor marijuana seizures. In 2014, excluding December, Highway Patrol logged 198 marijuana misdemeanor seizures.

Yearly felony seizures tell a somewhat different story. In 2010, Highway Patrol made 17 marijuana felony seizures. That fell to two in 2011, rose to 57 in 2012 and 109 in 2013, and then dropped again to 42 in 2014, excluding December.

Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder says in an email local law enforcement agencies began tracking marijuana-specific offenses in 2014 “because Wyoming had not attempted to look at marijuana related arrests specifically prior to that time, and there was/is some concern that Colorado’s laws may be impacting Wyoming.”

As a result, Stalder says, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and Laramie Police now try to discern the origins of marijuana when it’s found in Albany County and report it monthly to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.

Cushman said police couldn’t provide the overall number of 2014 marijuana offenses in Albany County. But the Sheriff’s Office and Laramie Police reported 124 incidents for which marijuana seized in Albany County likely originated in Colorado. Of those, investigators confirmed marijuana came from Colorado in 37 incidents. Investigators suspected the remaining 87 incidents had Colorado origins, but were unable to confirm as much, according to raw data provided to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.

The University of Wyoming Police Department also does not separate marijuana from other possession of a controlled substance charges.

UW Police Chief Michael Samp estimated roughly 98 percent of all drug arrests on campus are for misdemeanor marijuana, with the remaining 2 percent “being prescription medications, cocaine, methamphetamine and mushrooms.”

UW Police began seeing more marijuana-related offenses after Colorado’s medicinal marijuana laws of 2010, Samp said.

In 2009, UW Police logged 32 drug arrests. The number rose to 48 in 2010 and 97 in 2011. After that, drug arrests dropped to 60 in 2012 before rising again to 107 in 2013. By Dec. 3, 2014, UW Police logged 48 on-campus drug arrests.

“Our numbers have gone up to as high as four times what they used to be on an average in the years prior to Colorado’s legalization of medicinal marijuana,” Samp said of the overall trend.

As for 2014, he said: “With only one partial year of data for recreational marijuana, the numbers seem to be actually pretty level, if not slightly down from our record years.”

Turning a corner

Anecdotally speaking, Cushman said he suspects southern Wyoming has seen a “steady or slight increase” in marijuana offenses as a result of Colorado legalization.

“We believe that at least (124) of them are coming from Colorado sources,” he said. “It’s easy to buy in Colorado because it’s legal there now, and all you have to do is transport it up here. But here, it’s illegal to buy and sell, obviously, so why risk it here when you can go buy it legal there and just try to smuggle it back? That’s what we’re seeing.”

More importantly, however, Cushman said Colorado legalization seems to be changing some Wyomingites’ attitudes toward marijuana.

Many of those cited or arrested, Cushman said, seem to figure that, since cannabis is legal a short distance from Laramie, it’s no big deal to have it here.

“They know it’s illegal,” he said, “But they think, ‘Maybe it’s not as bad as what everyone says it is. Maybe it’s illegal just because Wyoming is backwards.’ So, the acceptance of marijuana has turned a corner in Wyoming.”

Police are increasingly encountering more potent marijuana, Samp said, which presents problems because those using it become more intoxicated.

 “What maybe is most disconcerting from a law enforcement perspective is the quality of the marijuana that we’re seeing, the level of intoxication due to the marijuana, and the increase in drug-related driving offenses — or driving under the influence of marijuana,” he said.

Cushman said numbers on drug-related DWIs could not be provided.

“Right now, I think it’s too early to tell, but I can say anecdotally that we have marijuana DWIs in town,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me that we’ve had more marijuana (DWIs) since it’s been legal in Colorado.”

More harm than good

Residents’ attitudes about marijuana might have turned a corner in recent years, but Wyoming’s laws have not.

The Wyoming Controlled Substances act criminalizes the possession of marijuana in any quantity, according to 420Law.net, a Wyoming marijuana law website published by Neubauer, Pelkey and Goldfinger, LLP., a Laramie-based law firm.

Under Wyoming law, it is a misdemeanor to possess any quantity up to three ounces, which is punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1000, according to 420Law.

“This is true even if all you have is a pipe with trace amounts,” according to the website. “A third conviction over the course of your lifetime can be charged as a felony, and can land you in the state penitentiary for up to five years.”

Possession of more than three ounces is a felony, punishable by up to five years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, of the aforementioned law firm, argues Wyoming should begin loosening the belt on its marijuana laws.

“We pass criminal laws to protect society from harm,” Pelkey said. “It’s pretty clear that the biggest harm that young adults are exposed to comes from the (marijuana) law itself.”

Compared to other drugs, such as alcohol and cocaine, Pelkey said marijuana renders a user relatively passive. To illustrate, he described a recent trip he took to Riot Fest, a music festival in Denver. With four stages, 73 bands, carnival rides, food booths and three days of music, Pelkey described the event as “a county fair for heavy metal and punk rock.”

“There was a cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over the place,” he said. “I saw 35,000 people walking around the venue. You could smell weed everywhere you went. I saw three cops. Two had their hands in their pockets. It was the most relaxed atmosphere. There was no violence. It was a completely serene and mellow environment.”

Pelkey contrasted this apparent stoner’s utopia with the stringent laws and enforcement practices of the Cowboy State.

“Here in Wyoming … you saddle a young person with a drug conviction, it interferes with their ability to get financial aid,” he said. “It interferes with their ability to get a job.

“There’s no reason why a 19-year-old kid, a sophomore at UW coming back from a weekend in Colorado, should have to face a year in jail for a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, and up to five years in Rawlins for a felony amount.”

Marijuana possession is a nonviolent offense, Pelkey said. Yet numerous people are imprisoned in Wyoming each year for felony marijuana charges, he said, and those imprisonments come with a hefty price tag for the state’s taxpayers.

A fiscal note prepared by the Wyoming Legislative Services Office stated the financial effect of marijuana-related incarcerations in Wyoming is “indeterminable due to an unknown number of cases.”

But the same note stated each inmate costs the state about $45,625 a year, including medical costs.

On those grounds, Pelkey argued decriminalizing marijuana would save the state plenty of money.

“I’d just as soon see that money spent for school lunches,” he said.

Pelkey said he is not advocating for full-on legalization — at least not at first. State lawmakers should first watch how legalization pans out in “the laboratory” of Colorado. In the meantime, however, he supports the idea of taking steps toward decriminalization.

As a member of the state judiciary committee, Pelkey plans to introduce a rewrite to the statute that makes three successive marijuana misdemeanor convictions a felony.

For comparison, under Wyoming law, a person receives a felony DUI if it’s his or her fourth conviction within 10 years.

Battery of a household member becomes a felony on a person’s third conviction within 10 years.

Wyoming’s felony marijuana threshold is lower than both, Pelkey said.

“If you get three misdemeanor possession charges anywhere in America, and the third one happens to be in Wyoming — they could have occurred at any point in your life — that third one is charged as a felony,” he said.

His bill would raise the felony threshold to four misdemeanor offenses in five years, rather than three offenses anytime in a person’s lifetime, he said.

Upping the ante

Not everyone agrees Wyoming’s stringent marijuana laws do more harm than good to society.

Cushman said maintaining marijuana’s illegal status likely keeps its usage in check.

Comparing it to the alcohol-prohibition era of the 1920s and '30s, Cushman said legalizing cannabis would likely entail more people using it.

“During the prohibition days, you still had people that partook in alcohol, but the majority didn’t because they knew it was illegal,” he said. “When they legalized it, more people started to drink, and they only started because it’s now legal.”

This could lead to public safety problems, Cushman said, especially as marijuana potency has continuously intensified.

More marijuana in society would likely lead to more impaired-driving wrecks, he said.

Additionally, marijuana historically serves as a gateway drug, Cushman said, eventually ushering usage of harder drugs.

“When they make a gateway drug like marijuana legal, the experimenters will no longer be at the gateway portion, they’ll go up to the next level,” he said.

Samp agreed marijuana legalization could create enforcement and public-safety concerns.

“I think the drug courts may be a good option (for marijuana offenders), because you have more of a chance to educate your defendants,” he said. “However, I think if anything, the penalties for driving under the influence of drugs need to be enhanced, because of the potential danger to society.”

Samp conceded marijuana offenders are typically nonviolent. But he echoed Cushman’s point about marijuana being a gateway drug and the dangers associated with high-quality cannabis.

“I think (legalization) makes it more accessible to our youth, and as a gateway drug, it’s not going to be beneficial, like a lot of proponents for marijuana claim,” he said.

‘Nationwide rallying’

During the Dec. 18 District Court sentencing hearings, all three defendants had varying criminal histories. One had previously served time in the penitentiary for unrelated crimes. The second had absconded, breaking his probationary terms. The 24-year-old, speaking before the judge, sought first-time offender status.

All three were alike, however, in that marijuana had landed them in their ultimate situations, where they faced prison time for marijuana convictions.

During her argument for a reduced sentence, Linda Devine, the 24-year-old’s attorney, outlined some of the challenges local attorneys are noting as a result of Albany County’s proximity to Colorado.

“I talked to him about the laws of Colorado as opposed to the laws of Wyoming,” Devine told the judge. “It’s not necessarily the substance; it’s the laws here.”

Devine said there seemed to be “nationwide rallying” that marijuana was “not that big a deal.”

And yet, “this is where we are, in this state, and it’s about respecting these laws in this state,” she said.

At the hearing’s end, the man was not granted first-offender status on account of he was arrested in connection with allegations he was dealing marijuana. Judge Jeffrey Donnell said his actions were illegal anywhere and demonstrated a “continuing course of conduct.”

Instead, the man received a criminal felony conviction, a 2-5 year suspended sentence and a $2,500 fine, with three years supervised probation.

If he violates the terms of his probation, he could serve the underlying 2-5 years in prison.

“You say you want to straighten yourself out,” Donnell told the man. “I hope you do.”

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