(Andy Cross, Denver Post file)

Wyoming bill to end jail time for small amounts of pot defeated

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming House of Representatives on Wednesday defeated a bill to reduce the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

The House voted 38-to-22 against a bill sponsored by Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne. His bill would have specified civil fines rather than possible jail time upon conviction of possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

Byrd emphasized on the House floor that more marijuana is coming into Wyoming now that the drug has been legalized in Colorado and is legal for medical purposes in other neighboring states.

“I can’t emphasize enough that this bill is not, repeat is not, legalization of marijuana,” Byrd said in his introduction of the bill. But he said current penalties are “way over the top” for having small amounts of the drug.

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Byrd emphasized that marijuana already is present in Wyoming. He said his proposed changes wouldn’t address those people who are moving large amounts. He said he’s not a marijuana user himself.

Byrd said his bill was aimed at what he called “inadvertent travelers” who go to Colorado, partake of the drug and then can face prosecution when they return to Wyoming for amounts as small as remaining burnt ashes in their car ashtrays.

“We’re addressing the small amounts that people would bring across the state line, either accidentally or purposefully,” Byrd said.

Byrd said he had heard from Wyoming residents who travel out of state to obtain the drug for medical reasons. He said they’re taking the drug to be functional, but “because we have it illegal, they live in fear every day, that they might be arrested.”

Opponents included Rep. Elaine Harvey, a Lovell Republican who serves as chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. She said marijuana always has been regarded as a gateway drug that can lead people to harder drugs.

“Are we crazy?” Harvey asked her fellow House members.

Harvey said reducing penalties would make it more likely to find marijuana in Wyoming homes.

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he agreed with Harvey. A high school football coach, Harshman said the bill would send the wrong message to young people.

“I worry about the signal that this sends, whether it’s a misdemeanor or a crime, or whatever,” Harshman said. “I just think it sends a horrible signal when we’re trying to reduce substance abuse.”

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A ballot measure legalizing marijuana in Colorado passed in 2012.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said more marijuana is coming into her community since Colorado legalized the drug. She said police at the University of Wyoming have reported that arrests in dormitories have increased four-fold since 2010.

“This is real, and this is happening in terms of our overwhelmingly young people who are paying these fines, and now have a drug conviction on their record in addition to paying a high fine,” Connolly said.