GILLETTE — With the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Montana and both medical and recreational in South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming has become surrounded by weed-friendly states.
That stands in contrast to the Cowboy State itself, which is now almost an island in the region that allows neither recreational nor medicinal marijuana. And with Interstate 90 a major west-east highway through Gillette and Highway 59/I-25 a near straight-shot from pot-legal Colorado, Gillette is an axis of travel between them.
After the general election, marijuana has now been legalized in 15 states plus Washington, D.C. There are 34 states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes.
“Because of the shortened distance to a legalized state, I think it’s natural to assume that we will see more (marijuana in Gillette),” said Police Lt. Brent Wasson. “I don’t know, I don’t expect it to be significant. I think a lot of people who are interested in consuming those products drive to Colorado now.”
Montana, which had already allowed medical marijuana, approved recreational marijuana sales and consumption for people ages 21 and older. In South Dakota, both recreational and medical marijuana were approved in the same stroke, the first time any state approved both simultaneously.
The laws in both states have been passed, but not yet gone into effect.
“We’re kind of an island now, aren’t we?” said Campbell County Sheriff Scott Matheny.
He said that when marijuana became legalized and more accessible in Colorado in 2014, there was a noticeable effect throughout Wyoming, reaching up into Campbell County’s corner of the state.
“We got busier, especially in the southern part of the state, but not just the southern part of the state. I’m talking Campbell County too,” he said. “We were busy as well. Our numbers increased as far as arrests for marijuana.”
Policing the state
In November 2012, Colorado and Washington state were the first to legalize recreational marijuana. In Colorado, legalization went into effect in 2014. Since then, local law enforcement report a noticeable increase of pot in the area.
“Of course, in Wyoming it’s still illegal. It’s not much different than what we’ve been dealing with Colorado,” said Louey Williams, the team leader of the northeastern region of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
Williams said that there has been a noticeable swell of marijuana entering the state from Colorado, but with it now being available legally even closer to Gillette, he’s not sure how much of a difference it will make once Montana and South Dakota’s laws kick in.
“I don’t know if it’s going to increase that much more than what it is right now. It’s yet to be seen,” he said. “We see it all the time with it being moved from the West Coast to the East Coast to the states that it’s still illegal. Or from Colorado into Wyoming. I don’t know if it’ll increase it. Time will only tell.”
Many of the drugs that wind up in Gillette and Sheridan, marijuana or otherwise, come from the Denver area, Rapid City or the West Coast, Williams said.
With Wyoming having some of the stricter drug laws in the country, he said there have been instances of drug traffickers avoiding the state. It is unclear if that will change at all when the surrounding states form somewhat of a legal pathway for traffickers to stay clear of Wyoming by simply staying on highways north or south of state boundaries.
“In the past, we’ve heard about traffickers avoiding Wyoming or avoiding certain highways in Wyoming more heavily patrolled or just skirting Wyoming because the drug laws are stricter,” Williams said. “Wyoming’s district has always had a little heavier hammer on people trafficking through the state. I expect it probably will have an impact. How big of an impact? I just don’t know.”
As more and more states pass legislation easing restrictions on marijuana use and possession, and after several attempts within Wyoming to pass more weed-friendly bills recently, it may be only a matter of time before legalization reaches the Cowboy state as well, he said.
“Personally, as a guy who’s worked drug enforcement for 30 years, I don’t want to see it (legalization),” Williams said. “But I don’t make the laws. I only enforce them.”
For Wyoming law enforcement, marijuana remains an illegal drug. Policing its possession, use and distribution is part of the job.
But some in the state see promise for what legalization could mean for Wyoming changing its own marijuana legislation in the near future.
“I’m very optimistic about what it could mean for the state of Wyoming,” said Mark Baker, R-Green River, representative-elect for House District 60.
Prior to his recent election to the state House, Baker, who had also held a seat in House District 48 from 2013-17, was director of the Wyoming branch of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group in favor of reforming marijuana laws in the state.
“It’s really hard to fully understand the implications,” Baker said of the disparity between Wyoming’s rigid marijuana laws and other parts of the region that have become increasingly lenient toward it. “People are still going to jail (in Wyoming), still having to face criminal sanctions.
“I think that the overall ramifications are that you have people that want access, and even patients that need access, that in the end, if all else fails, they’re forced to leave the state and ultimately that’s the worst case scenario is you have people who are going to access something that is readily available in other states.”
The result could be people leaving the state altogether or taking their tax money out of state while risking criminal charges of buying and transporting a drug that is legal in one state into the one they call home, where it is illegal, he said.
In the face of Wyoming law enforcement that stands by the deleterious effects of marijuana on individuals and society, Baker believes the opposite. Through his advocacy, he said he has heard many stories of people who have had their lives improved by marijuana use.
While some refer to it as a gateway drug, Baker said for many, it is an “exit drug” for people who use marijuana to transition out of addictions to harder substances, such as opioids.
Baker said that he plans to advocate for marijuana legislation similar to what was recently adopted in Oklahoma, where it is legal medically.
“My hope is that Wyoming could lead the way and get ahead of that, because I do think that’s the direction it’s moving,” he said. “If we wait until that end, we’re going to find ourselves behind everybody else.”
For now, it remains illegal in Wyoming and increasingly more accessible in nearby states. How much of an impact Wyoming will experience from the Montana and South Dakota legislation is yet to be seen.
Ultimately, it may make it a little easier for some Wyomingites to get marijuana from out of state, but that’s nothing new, Wasson said.
“With Colorado being at least twice the distance, I think it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll see a little influx,” he said. “But I don’t anticipate anything overwhelming.”