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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
The Cheyenne City Council made history Wednesday when it became the first municipality in Wyoming to discuss decriminalizing marijuana.
Most council members also made it clear they will not support it, voting 5-2 against recommending the city adopt a new ordinance on the issue.
Most people who showed up to talk about allowing pot in city limits gave the council an earful in favor of decriminalization, with some saying the city also should consider legalization of pot on some level.
What It Does And Doesn’t Do
Council President Richard Johnson clarified that Wednesday’s discussion was not a debate on the legalization of recreational or medical marijuana and would only pertain to ticketing and prosecution of people found in possession of a misdemeanor amount of pot.
“This conversation is about the municipal decriminalization of marijuana in city limits,” he said.
Johnson told Cowboy State Daily last week his primary motivation to propose decriminalization is to save Wyoming’s capital city money on superfluous fines and attorney fees. He said the current drug paraphernalia laws are 21 years old and described some as “overkill.”
The proposed ordinance would have prevented the Cheyenne City Attorney’s office from bringing charges against people in municipal court, and law enforcement from sending drug paraphernalia cases related to marijuana to the court.
Enforce, Not Interpret, Laws
Cheyenne Police Chief Mark Francisco said there were 62 arrests involving drug paraphernalia in 2022 – all of which had other higher charges connected to them.
City Attorney Stefanie Boster said the municipal court is burdened with 600 outstanding cases, nearly twice as many as usual.
Francisco said the total paraphernalia cases equates to about $80,000 in fines for the city, but that the ordinance overall wouldn’t impact the city much.
“When we raise our hand and take our oath, we swear to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the state of Wyoming along with the ordinances of Cheyenne,” he said. “So this does not relieve us of our responsibility to enforce those laws.”
Councilmember Pete Laybourn said there is a lack of clarity of what the change would do.
“What we’re doing here tonight is going to confuse a heck of a lot of people,” he said.
Laybourn believes marijuana may be legal in Wyoming someday, “but it’s not tonight.”
He also said it’s an issue for state lawmakers to consider, not municipalities.
“We don’t pass ordinances to send a message,” he said. “We create laws for our officers to enforce.”
Councilmember Ken Esquibel spoke in favor of the ordinance change.
“When we’re talking about someone smoking a joint in their backyard, not a joint and a beer, not a joint and shot of whiskey, not a joint and a couple pills, only a joint, about the only extreme violence you’re going to see there is them attacking a bag of Cheetos,” he said.
Elected Officials Weigh In
State Rep. Daniel Singh, R-Cheyenne, said that although the community needs to be aware of the harmful effects of marijuana, he supports decriminalization in city limits.
“This is a question of whether or not the people of Cheyenne are intelligent enough to properly handle marijuana without the rod of justice being struck against them by their government,” he said. “We entrust the people around us with the responsibility of acting properly with alcohol, which has proven to be a deadly substance, or tobacco, which is a proven carcinogen.
“I think we should empower the individuals of Cheyenne, and if it’s a step in making the people in Wyoming freer, I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Marijuana is illegal on state and federal levels, but many states have ignored federal laws on the substance.
State Rep. Ben Hornok, R-Cheyenne, spoke against decriminalization.
He said the city can’t overrule state law, and allowing decriminalization in Cheyenne would create a special class of citizens with a status he believes would violate the Wyoming Constitution.
“Until the state deals with that, though, I don’t think the municipality can (act on this) constitutionally,” he said.
Boster said that’s wrong, as the ordinance would not make marijuana legal in the city of Cheyenne, only OK to possess a misdemeanor amount.
Resident Max Esdale agreed and said this concept is not novel because many municipalities around the country have passed decriminalization ordinances in conflict with state laws.
Former state lawmaker Jim Byrd supports the measure and said the financial impact enforcing marijuana laws on local law enforcement officers needs to be considered. He also said that, if nothing else, the proposed ordinance needs to be scrapped and re-written.
“You people that sit here in front of people having the fiscal responsibility to make sure the money is spent correctly to make this a safe city to live in,” he said. “The resources that will be involved in this will cost a lot of money that this will cost to adjudicate.”
Former mayoral candidate Dominique Lyon said decriminalization leads to lower substance abuse and keeps families together.
“From ex-junkies turning their life around to doctors and teachers stressing from work, for our sick who desperately need better options. Wyoming desperately needs better help,” she said. “Cannabis can fix it.”
Jen Solis, a 2022 Democratic Wyoming House candidate, said she had two friends with medical issues who were told by Wyoming doctors their issues could be resolved with marijuana. She said Wyoming’s laws intimidated them out of going to nearby Colorado to get it, where pot is legal.
Matt Warner said he has many issues with joint pain that are resolved with THC lotions. He compared that to alcohol, which is highly abused in Wyoming and the United States.
“If we stay stagnant and just keep everything illegal in like the way it was in the ’50s and ’60s, we’re never going to grow,” he said.
AJ Gould took it the argument a step farther, saying marijuana is “not as bad as people make it out to be,” and that the city also should consider legalizing medical marijuana.
“We’re missing out on so much tax revenue,” Gould said. “We need our roads fixed everywhere. Cannabis taxes can help with that.”
In 2022, Colorado received $423 million in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.
Not all the testimony was favorable to decriminalization.
Pete Seekell, 67, a Navy veteran, said marijuana destroyed his life when he became addicted to it in high school, saying that, “You certainly depend on it, it destroyed my life.”
Jeff Barnes, who ran for Laramie County sheriff last year, said he has seen connections between mairjuana use and extreme violence. He also said decriminalization is the first step on the road to legalization of marijuana.
“It causes extreme paranoia. If you have any type of bipolar, schizophrenia, it exacerbates that problem dramatically,” he said.
Veteran Jeff McVay said he has been smoking marijuana since a very young age and still isn’t addicted.
“When I was 5 years old, my brothers were blowing smoke in my face,” he said. “And by 7 years old, I was saying, ‘You better smoke that joint with me or I’m going to tell mom.’”
Gary Brown said marijuana would still be illegal statewide even if the ordinance were active, which would confuse some people.
“When you make it legal, people just think they can do it anywhere,” he said. “It’s not. It’s public intoxication.”
Councilmember Michelle Aldrich, who doesn’t favor decriminalization, said she sees the debate as a state legislative issue. Fellow member Jeff White said although he supports legalizing medical marijuana, he believes the issue needs to be resolved by the Legislature.
He also said he’d be concern about creating more bureaucracy by enacting the ordinance change.
Aldrich expressed doubt decriminalization would benefit the city and that it’s rare for law enforcement to ticket people purely for drug paraphernalia, mentioning how only three such tickets were writen in 2022.
“I think we’re creating an issue where there’s really not an issue,” she said.
Cody resident Richard Jones warned council members that Cheyenne could become a sanctuary city for marijuana if it passes the decriminalization ordinance. Fellow Park County resident Carrie Satterwhite, secretary of marijuana advocacy group Wyoming NORML, said the sky will not fall if the substance is decriminalized.
“People are going to use marijuana whether it’s legal or not,” she said.
The council could discuss the matter again on a second reading of the proposed ordinance Monday, which Johnson said he believes will happen. He also said he doesn’t expect the proposal to receive a significant swing in council votes to move it forward from there.
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