Wyoming committee strips felony penalty from marijuana edibles bill

Lawmakers scrambling to close a legal loophole with marijuana-infused foods have disagreed in this legislative session over how to outlaw edibles that hold varying concentrations of THC

Published: Feb 25, 2016, 7:20 pm

By Ben Neary, Associated Press

CHEYENNE — A Wyoming legislative committee on Thursday moved to make possession of marijuana brownies and other foods and beverages containing the drug a misdemeanor.

The Wyoming Senate earlier this week called for making it a felony to possess more than three ounces of food or drink containing marijuana or its active ingredients.

However, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday stripped out the felony language, leaving the bill instead with a system of increasingly stiff misdemeanor penalties for repeated convictions of possessing food or beverages containing THC, the active compound in marijuana.

The full House still must act on the bill before a conference committee could try to resolve any differences between the House and Senate versions.

Wyoming has seen a spike in possession of marijuana edibles and beverages since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014. Neighboring Montana allows medical use of marijuana.

District Judge Steven Sharpe of Cheyenne last year ruled that existing state law outlawing marijuana refers specifically to its plant form. He dismissed criminal charges against a man accused of possessing felony amounts of marijuana after the Wyoming Highway Patrol stopped him for an alleged traffic violation and found nearly 2 pounds of marijuana candies, cookies, bread and chocolate bars.

Lawmakers have disagreed in this legislative session over how to outlaw marijuana edibles that hold varying concentrations of THC.

Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, had proposed the language that the Senate adopted that increased penalties for repeated misdemeanor convictions of possessing more than 3 ounces of edibles, regardless of THC concentration, reaching the felony level if a person had a fourth conviction within three years.

“This primarily goes into the case of our visiting college students,” Meier told the House committee on Thursday. “They can be a dummy three times in three years, but they can’t be a dummy four times in three years.”

Jeremiah Sandburg, district attorney in Cheyenne, testified that a state lab can test whether a substance has THC, but it can’t determine the concentration. “My understanding is that there are very few labs across the country that can, and they are very expensive to use,” he said.

Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, asked Sandburg how Wyoming has dealt with the issue in the past. “It seems to me this isn’t a new issue,” he said. “Are we saying it’s been legal to have pot brownies in Wyoming for the past 50 years?”

Sandburg responded, “I would say it’s a relatively new issue in terms of what we’re seeing come up from Colorado. When they let the cat out of the bag down there, they did it without any sort of regulation.”

Kroeker moved to remove the felony penalty language from the bill.

Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette, spoke against the amendment. A former Campbell County sheriff, Pownall said first-time marijuana possession cases seldom result in felony charges.

“This is a serious problem,” Pownall said. “And much of it is brought on by the state to the south of us, and we’ve got to deal with it. And I do believe that we need to leave felony in there to at least show that we’re serious about it, that the state of Wyoming is serious about it.”

Before the final committee vote, Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, said he thought the amended bill was a step in the right direction. “But it also underscores the futility of the state trying to regulate what is essentially a plant,” he said.