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As medical cannabis moves forward, Wyoming activists, lawmakers look to Utah

Posted at 9:40 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 23:59:52-05

CHEYENNE — Wyoming activists and politicians are preparing to push for medical cannabis to implemented in that state and are looking at Utah's newly-created medical cannabis program for ideas on what to do — and what not to do.

Christine Stenquist, a backer of the original ballot initiative that legalized medical cannabis in Utah, has been traveling to Wyoming to help mobilize advocates and get legislation off the ground.

"If I hadn’t gone through what I went through in Utah, I wouldn’t be showing up in Wyoming," she said in a recent interview with FOX 13.

Stenquist, who leads Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), pushed for Prop. 2's passage, then sued the state when the legislature overrode what voters approved with its own highly-regulated program. She has been somewhat critical of what Utah created, arguing it does not go far enough to help patients who wish to try cannabis to ease suffering.

In 2018, as that debate was going on in the Utah State Legislature, Stenquist was invited to Wyoming to speak to a group of medical cannabis supporters. That led to more speaking engagements and, eventually, work in the Wyoming State Capitol.

"I was hoping to bring my experience what I learned in Utah to Wyoming and see if legislators and advocates can work together on a piece of legislation," she said.

She said the experience in Wyoming has been different. The state legislature is as conservative as Utah, but with a little more libertarian bent.

"Let’s be frank, because we have an element different in this state than any other state," she said of Utah. "And what makes us conservative as opposed to a conservative in another state — it’s the religion."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a dominant presence in Utah culture and politics, was a primary opponent of Proposition 2, Utah's medical marijuana ballot initiative. It did back the legislature's "compromise" bill.

Stenquist has been helpful to Madonna Long, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities in Wyoming. She has also been working on getting medical cannabis legislation considered in Cheyenne.

"The people in Wyoming are ready and it’s just up to our leaders to decide which way they’re going to go forward with that type of legislation," Long told FOX 13.

Long is involved in the creation of "Wyoming Patients," and is working to get supporters of a medical cannabis program together to push this year for legislation that advances the issue. She said she would be among those who could potentially benefit.

"We’re going to bringing them our voices. We’re going to be bringing them our stories," she said, urging Wyoming residents to contact their lawmakers and urge them to support medical cannabis legislation.

So far, only one bill has been made public in the 2021 Wyoming State Legislature. House Bill 82, sponsored by Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, would order a study on whether medical marijuana is good for the state.

"It does not legalize medical marijuana, but it’s intended to be a comprehensive, due diligence study," he told FOX 13. "I believe if you want to implement good policy, it’s better to understand what the requirements are."

Surrounded by cannabis states, Rep. Henderson said he has looked at Utah's system as he explores whether to implement medical cannabis in Wyoming.

"I’ve been watching what’s going on around us and I’m particularly interested in Utah," he said.

By the time the Wyoming State Legislature meets next month, there could be three different bills. Other bills FOX 13 is told are being worked on include a marijuana decriminalization and "grow at home" bill, and another that implements a full cannabis program including dispensaries across the state.

Long said what patients need is a fully working cannabis program.

"We have to have brick-and-mortar, because we shouldn’t limit access for our most vulnerable people, who are really the people that are suffering," she said.

That view is shared by Rep. Marshall Burt, who is the legislature's first Libertarian lawmaker.

"We can continue to hold off and push it down the road that it’s never going to happen in our state, or we can look at how we embrace it," he said in an interview with FOX 13.

Rep. Burt said he is willing to co-sponsor cannabis bills that implement a program, setting up the state's first "tri-partisan legislation." But he also warned that, like Utah, voters in Wyoming could take matters into their own hands and push a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana.

"If it goes that way, by all means we will push a ballot initiative and get the work done," Rep. Burt said. "We’ll get it on the ballot and see where the people want to go with it."

But as Utah found, a ballot initiative carries its own risks with the legislature being able to make changes to what voters approve.

"I don’t want Wyoming to fall into the same trap Utah did and get it back to the state, the state controls it again, and the people’s voice can’t do anything," Rep. Burt said.

Rep. Henderson acknowledged they cannot delay discussion about medical cannabis any longer, but he hasn't decided if he supports a cannabis program in Wyoming.

"It’s legal in a different form in each of the states around us except Idaho," he said. "I think we need to move ahead in the right way. But we need to be ready for what we’re going to face. I support the discussion. I haven’t made a final decision on how the legalization aspect would turn out."

Stenquist is preparing to travel back to Cheyenne for the legislative session, pushing for a robust program. She said Oklahoma has a model that other states, including Utah, should emulate.

"I’m very hopeful for Wyoming. I’m very optimistic in what they’re trying to do. They’re not done yet," she told FOX 13. "They may go slow, but I think they’ll set an example for the rest of the country on how a conservative state can move forward."