Sunday, April 9, 2017

The high cost of prohibition

People who smoke marijuana either for medical or recreational purposes are playing musical chairs with the law. The music begins in states where marijuana is purchased legally. The music continues until they cross, as Brewer and Shipley said, “one toke over the line” into Wyoming.

Here’s the deal. Someone buys marijuana in Colorado. They pay a steep tax. The Denver Post says, “The revenue from retail marijuana sales is helping communities address homelessness, send children to college, patch potholes, secure water rights, and fund an array of projects.”

The 62 Colorado cities and 22 counties allowing retail sales of the green leafy substance cashed in to the tune of more than a billion dollars last year, which brings me back to the “someone” who bought the marijuana in Colorado and paid the tax into that state’s coffers. 

That person then loads the marijuana into a vehicle and heads to a prohibition state like Wyoming where there is a market hungering to have a toke. Along the way, some of those vehicles are pulled over by law enforcement. Why would someone hauling a load of marijuana down a Wyoming highway be speeding? Who knows, but most are stopped for that reason. The trooper then sniffs the unique odor of the drug and an arrest follows.

At that moment, the same marijuana that is helping Colorado communities meet the needs of the homeless, send children to college, patch potholes, secure water rights, and fund an array of projects, becomes a serious drain on Wyoming’s dwindling resources.

Now, what started out as a revenue generator a few miles down the road and over the border, becomes a revenue eater in Wyoming. In addition to the cost of the law enforcement and the arrest, there are taxpayer expenses incurred for detention, public defenders and prosecutors, the judge, jury and disposition of the case, be it jail, prison, or probation.

Here where I live in Albany County more than half of 2016’s felony drug cases in the District Court were filed against out-of-staters. Not all those charges involved marijuana but almost a third of them named people who came here from states where marijuana is legal. In addition, Wyoming Highway Patrolman Lt. Mike Simmons told the Laramie Boomerang that “many of the misdemeanor cases his troopers see come from Colorado.”

In 2016, 24 people were charged in Albany County with felony possession of marijuana, i.e. holding 3 ounces or more. Three-quarters of them were from out of state. Among them were people from a dozen other states, nine of which have legalized marijuana in some form or another.

Peggy Trent is the Albany County Attorney. She prosecutes these defendants. Among the evidence law enforcement hands over to her for the trial are receipts from Colorado marijuana dispensaries that tell what the drugs cost at retail and the amount of tax revenue collected. Trent says, “You’ll notice that there’s more than one individual in a vehicle, and they’re going from dispensary to dispensary and they have all the receipts.”

Trent laments that Wyoming can’t return the confiscated marijuana for a full refund. That would help our state offset at least a portion of our taxpayers’ costs of shepherding these cases through Wyoming’s criminal justice system.

According to, just over half the states have legalized marijuana in some form. It isn’t just Blue states either. Among those states legalizing marijuana for either or both medical and recreational use are a growing number of states where Trump won including Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Ohio, Florida and Michigan. A bill is on the verge of passing in neighboring Nebraska.

Perhaps those genuinely-conservative legislators best understand the uncomplicated economics of prohibition. In any event, the I80 and I25 corridors make it certain that a lot of marijuana, legally purchased elsewhere, will make its way into Wyoming.

Ah Wyoming, proud always to reject that which makes sense to nearly every other state. Memo to Wyoming lawmakers: what was once frighteningly progressive has become comfortably conservative.

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