SHERIDAN — Many states surrounding Wyoming have legalized marijuana in one form or another, with South Dakota and Montana voting to legalize the schedule one drug in the 2020 election for recreational use. Wyoming's willingness to follow suit and the implications of the potential legalization in the state remain unclear and worrisome to local law enforcement.
South Dakota and Montana both voted to legalize weed Nov. 3. South Dakota voters approved adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana, while medical patients with a registration card can have up to three ounces. Montana voters passed a 20% tax on marijuana and allowed individual counties to prohibit dispensaries. Possession or use of up to one ounce was also approved. Montana and South Dakota join Colorado, which legalized the drug in 2012. Montana also legalized medical marijuana in 2004.
Whether Wyoming will become the next state to legalize the drug, local law enforcement leaders are not sure. A University of Wyoming study published Dec. 8 indicated more than half of Wyomingites support marijuana legalization in the state. The statewide survey was conducted Oct. 8-29, yielding 614 responses from randomly selected Wyoming citizens.
According to a survey by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, 54% of Wyoming residents now say they support allowing adults in Wyoming to legally possess marijuana for personal use.
“This continues the steady increase in support observed from 2014, 2016 and 2018, when support rose from 37% to 41% to 49%, respectively,” the report said.
Clear patterns indicate a younger demographic supporting legalization, with the most support in the 25- to 34-year-old range, which responded with 67% in favor of it.
From a law enforcement standpoint, Sheridan Police Chief Travis Koltiska doesn’t expect drug traffic to increase on the interstates, necessarily but said it’s likely Sheridanites will travel to neighboring states to retrieve marijuana and get caught in their home county. Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson believes drug traffic will increase in the area.
“Large legal operations in surrounding states have also shown us increased availability in distribution amounts, and that will likely increase if we look at data from the past,” Thompson said.
Historically, it takes law enforcement a few months after the legalization of the drug in another state to see the impact, Thompson said.
Despite it remaining illegal to possess any and all forms or amounts of marijuana in Wyoming, some believe the drug should not be criminalized.
Three-quarters of Wyoming residents believe people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should not serve time in jail, according to the UW study. This has increased from 69% in 2018 and from 66% in 2014.
“As laws regarding the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana change around the U.S., especially in nearby states, it’s not surprising to see attitudes in Wyoming change as well,” said Brian Harnisch, a senior research scientist at WYSAC. “In all bordering states except Idaho, marijuana or medical marijuana has been legalized to some extent or decriminalized.”
Koltiska said usually in discussions regarding decriminalizing marijuana, people will also bring alcohol into the conversation, presenting it as more of an issue in the community — and the nation — than marijuana.
“Alcohol was legal 70 years before I was born,” Koltiska said, who said he will never professionally support the legalization of recreational marijuana use. “Looking back, if alcohol was in the same position as marijuana right now and had seen the effects of alcohol being used illegally, would I support it? I don’t know. Maybe I would not.
"I hate seeing any kind of substance that does have a chance to be abused,” he continued. “The more availability in society of substances that can be abused, the more dangerous it is for everyone.”
Thompson recognized legalization of marijuana could add revenue to the state budget — an option he believes legislators may entertain in the future — but also noted the implications that follow.
“I am concerned that Wyoming will look at legalizing marijuana as a way to increase government revenue,” Thompson said. “If we look at any industry based solely on revenue generation, I think that is concerning. It might increase revenue in the short term, but what are the long-term costs to personal health and the already strapped public health system in Wyoming?
“I would hope that legalization efforts focus on personal freedoms, supporting the affected health systems and maintaining a focus on factual education about the pros and cons of marijuana use,” he said.
While legislation has not been presented on the matter recently, public perception of legalizing the drug continues to increase as law enforcement’s opposition remains steady.