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Wyoming Advocates Hopeful About Pot Initiatives Despite Odds

Organizers are backing petitions that would decriminalize marijuana and legalize the drug for medical use.

Wyoming State Capitol, Cheyenne.
Wyoming State Capitol, Cheyenne.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Supporters of two new marijuana ballot petitions in Wyoming say they’re optimistic about getting pot questions before voters next year, especially with growing support from conservatives in the deep-red state. Even so, they face daunting odds because of the difficulty of getting such initiatives on the ballot and failing to do so four years ago.

The Legislature legalized hemp and hemp oil in 2019, but Wyoming is among a dwindling number of states that haven't approved marijuana in some form. Thirty-six states now allow medical marijuana, and 17 have approved recreational marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This time around, some Republicans in deeply conservative Wyoming are finding common cause with Democrats and others on marijuana.

“It's well past due," state Rep. Mark Baker said. “If they're successful in reaching the ballot and putting the question to the people, I do think it is going to be successful.”

Baker, a Republican from southwestern Wyoming's Green River, stepped down as director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws after being elected last year. Other outspoken supporters include a state representative who last year became the first Libertarian Party candidate elected to a U.S. statehouse in 20 years.

Voters won't be asked to sign off on recreational marijuana, at least for now.

One petition would seek to legalize marijuana for medical use. The other would decriminalize it. After being submitted to the Wyoming secretary of state Friday, they await legal review before a signature effort begins as soon as this summer.

It's a daunting challenge that is rarely completed. Voters haven't approved a ballot initiative — a railroad safety measure — since 1992.

The last initiatives to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, both involving term limits, narrowly failed at the polls in 1996. Eight efforts have failed to get enough signatures since, including the 2017 medical marijuana petition.

Wyoming is among 26 states that allow public referendums, and its process demands commitment and strategy. Organizers must gather valid signatures from 15% of voters in the previous general election from each of at least 16 of the state’s 23 counties.

Nonetheless, Wyoming NORML Director Bennett Sondeno predicted the group that supports changing marijuana laws would be able to get enough valid signatures for both measures in three to six months. The law allows 18 months.

“We’re going to get it done this time,” Sondeno said.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have been lukewarm on pot. Last winter, Baker co-sponsored legislation to broadly legalize marijuana, which passed out of committee but wasn't considered further in a session dominated by state spending cuts amid declining revenue from the coal, oil and gas industries.

Recreational marijuana, taxed at 30%, would net Wyoming almost $50 million a year, according to a state fiscal analysis of the bill. Even so, Republican Gov. Mark Gordon opposes it and would need to review any medical marijuana bill before deciding whether to sign it, spokesman Michael Pearlman said.

The state Constitution doesn't allow the governor or lawmakers to approve or block ballot initiatives, however.

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