Wyoming keeps cannabis possession criminal

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Leland Rucker

Even if they don’t support legalization, more and more states are changing or considering changing marijuana possession laws from criminal to ticket offenses.

But not all state legislators are ready to make that move. In a floor vote last week, the Wyoming house killed Bill 49. Sponsor Jim Byrd, a Cheyenne Democrat, wanted the state to turn cannabis possession cases into civil offenses: Fine anybody with up to a half ounce $50 and anybody with a half ounce to an ounce $100.

Currently, in Wyoming, a person caught with up to three ounces of pot faces a misdemeanor conviction with a penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000. A third conviction can carry a five-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine.

Byrd reminded his colleagues that the state is filling courtrooms and jails with young people on possession offenses while wasting the state’s money, he told his fellow legislators. It costs $10,000 to prosecute each possession case, and even more to incarcerate offenders. It was enough to convince the House Judiciary Committee to pass the bill 7-2 to send to the full house.

In a floor vote last week, lawmakers voted 38-22 to kill the bill. Another one that would have allowed medical marijuana for patients suffering from long-term pain, glaucoma or migraines was voted down at the same time. And lawmakers are now considering House Bill 187, which would prohibit any new bills or discussion of marijuana policy while the state spends $15,000 on a study of the drug’s impacts on the criminal justice system, public health and state revenue.

On a national level, on Jan. 8, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 was introduced in the Senate as S. 134 by a coalition of bipartisan senators, including Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden. In the House, H.R. 525 was introduced by Republican Thomas Massie and our own Jared Polis, who has been working on this issue for years. It has a staggering 47 co-sponsors.

The bills would build on the landmark legislation enacted in last year’s farm bill. Section 7606 of that act, the Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research, made industrial hemp distinct from marijuana and allows colleges and research facilities in states where hemp is legal to begin research and pilot programs to develop hemp varieties. Since hemp hasn’t been grown in the U.S. for many decades, new varieties and strains are desperately needed for production to resume.

“The federal ban on hemp has been a waste of taxpayer dollars that ignores science, suppresses innovation and subverts the will of states that have chosen to incorporate this versatile crop into their economies,” Polis said in a press release. “I am hopeful that Congress will build on last year’s progress on hemp research and pilot programs by passing the Industrial Hemp Farming Act to allow this historical American crop to once again thrive on our farmlands.”

The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 would simply amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from marihuana (yes, the government still officially spells it this way) and allow production to begin again. America imports most of its hemp from China and Canada and is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t allow hemp production.

Currently, three states — Kentucky, Colorado and Vermont — have begun planting research hemp crops, and another 18 — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia — can do so.

Here’s how simple the amendment really is. Basically, it would change a few words in the Controlled Substances Act. “Section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802) is amended — in paragraph 16 by adding at the end: ‘The term marihuana does not include industrial hemp,’ and by adding at the end the following: ‘The term industrial hemp means the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.’ 

“Industrial hemp determination by States Section 201 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 811) is amended by adding at the end the following: ‘If a person grows or processes Cannabis sativa L. for purposes of making industrial hemp in accordance with State law, the Cannabis sativa L. shall be deemed to meet the concentration limitation under section 102, unless the Attorney General determines that the State law is not reasonably calculated to comply with section 102.’” 

That’s it. That’s all it would take to get industrial hemp, which should never have been on a list of controlled substances in the first place, back in U.S. fields, where it once was and should be. A couple of punctuation changes and a couple of sentences. (That’s all it would really take to amend the Controlled Substances Act to take marihuana off its Schedule 1 designation, too.)

However, the first time I checked S. 134 on Govtrack.us, which allows citizens to track the progress of bills, the Senate version, which is in the Judicial Committee, was given an 11 percent chance of becoming law. When I checked again, those odds were down to 5 percent.

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannibis each Thursday morning on KGNU. http:// news.kgnu.org/weed

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