Wyoming’s tough initiative law sinks another one

CHEYENNE — The recent failure of an attempt to sanction certain marijuana use through a ballot initiative bodes poorly for similar efforts in the future.

I am thinking of Medicaid expansion and their proponents’ plan to take their proposal to the voters through the ballot initiative route.

This was the alternate left after the Legislature this session once against didn’t move the medicaid expansion bill.

The sponsoring marijuana group called NORML, headquartered in Gillette, issued a small news release last week announcing it failed by the March 7 deadline to get enough signatures to warrant a slot on the 2024 general election ballot.

The group sponsored two proposals. One would legalize the medical use of marijuana. The companion proposal would decrease penalties for nonviolent cannabis offenses.

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The sponsors were required to collect the signatures of 41,776 verified voters.

They exceeded the threshold by collecting 48,687 signatures for medical marijuana, and 47,426 for nonviolent use cannabis penalties.

“Both initiatives received more signatures from voters than any other in history, and we are excited to announced we have met the threshold requirement,” Wyoming NORML Executive Director Bennett Sondeno said in a news release.

However, Wyoming highly restrictive ballot initiative law also calls for signatures from 15% of those voting the past general election from two-thirds of the counties.

Both initiatives met that threshold in 14 of the 16 counties required.

They missed the mark in two counties. That failure ends the initiative effort.

The supporters, however, say they will continue to work with legislators on bills that are identical or similar to the two initiatives.

I was unable to reach any NORML folks by email or phone last week.

I would like to learn which two counties they failed in.

Also, if they hired professional signature collectors. And how much they spent on this effort.

Meanwhile voters in Oklahoma last week rejected a ballot proposal that would have legalized recreational marijuana.

That state already has a law, adopted through a 2018 ballot initative, that legalized medical marijuana.

According to an Associated Press story, the voters in Oklahoma rejected the recreational marijuana proposal following a late blitz of opposition from faith leaders, law enforcement and prosecutors.

Oklahoma would have become the 22nd state to legalize adult use of cannabis and would join conservatives sites like Montana and Missouri that also approved that use.

Last year Maryland and Missouri approved the measures, and voters in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota rejected the proposals.

Most of those adopted deal only with medical marijuana which appears to be more acceptable than widespread use for recreation use.

Meanwhile, Wyoming’s record on ballot initiatives is fairly bleak.

Legislators who were active in 1969 when they passed the initiative and referendum package said they deliberately made the requirements onerous.

They didn’t want to clutter up the ballot, like Colorado.

Wyoming’s law, unlike Colorado’s for example, does not allow voters to change the constitution through a ballot initiative, however.

The Legislature stiffened the requirements further in 1997 when they put an amendment on the 1998 ballot that required the signatures be collected from two-thirds of the counties.

The purpose of that amendment was to prevent signature collectors from getting the signatures of the bulk of voters while standing outside box stores in Casper and Cheyenne.

The amendment forced them to go into the smaller counties to get those signatures.

The initiatives that were able to reach the new thresholds were primarily those well financed. The sponsors hired professional signature gatherers. And that takes money.

I think — and polls show — that a medical treatment amendment would pass if it could ever get to the voters.

It’s also clear that the movement toward legalization of marijuana, at least for medical purposes, has been speedy and successful in other states.

Supporters now are looking to the federal government to follow suit.

Right now this is a problem for law enforcement in a city like Cheyenne which is seven miles from Colorado where it is legal and fully accessible.

This is a wacky system we have here.

Joan Barron is a former capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or jmbarron@bresnan.net.

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