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.”
Campbell County’s application to create its own community college district has cleared its first hurdle, and now it’s on to the state Legislature.
In a unanimous decision Friday afternoon, the Wyoming Community College Commission voted 7-0 to approve a new community college district in Campbell County centered around Gillette College.
“Essentially, all of them decided (Campbell County) should have the opportunity to move forward,” WCCC Commissioner Gregg Blikre said after the meeting Friday. “It gives Campbell County citizens a chance to form their own district and have a say in what their education system for higher education will be.”
With the WCCC’s approval, the hopes of a new community college district lies in the hands of the state Legislature, which will have to pass a bill through the state House and Senate to move the issue to a public vote.
A desire for autonomy emerged as a prevailing theme throughout Campbell County’s application process.
Essentially, the issue was “one of self-determination and that Campbell County, should it accept the tax, would have the right to make its own decisions on what it’s workforce needs,” said state Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, on Saturday.
Amid economic uncertainty and talks of diversifying the local and state economies, those in favor of the new district cite the county’s ability to implement curricula and make decisions based on what its future workforce may dictate.
“The college will be much more quickly able to, and much more likely able to, bring forth educational programs that meet the needs of our community,” Blikre said. “The people in Campbell County can decide to do what our county needs.”
The price of a district
In a time of statewide budget cuts, concern for how the formation of new community college district would affect funding of the other seven community college districts was a main topic thoughout the application process.
“The only contextual issue here is funding, in my opinion,” Northern Wyoming Community College District President Walter Tribley said at the WCCC meeting.
“Both for our new college district, that it doesn’t just get a toehold because Campbell County has some one-time money, but that it gets a toehold, a foothold, a leghold, an armhold and becomes a sparkling member of our community college system,” he said.
Tribley said that his district stands to lose about $3 million if Gillette College were to leave and form one of its own, as opposed to the initial $2 million projected loss given earlier in the process.
“I just don’t want you to be surprised if Northern Wyoming Community College District is going to need to have some separate line-item funding during this transitional period,” Tribley told the commissioners. “Perhaps the new Gillette College might need that as well.”
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education conducted a third-party survey to provide context and an outside perspective on the Gillette College proposal. It found that a new community college district in Campbell County would be a “net positive” for the other districts.
Because of the funding model used by the Wyoming Community College District, the survey determined that the influx of local revenue from Campbell County would reduce Gillette College’s need for state funding and leave more for the other districts.
The survey also concluded that the Northern Wyoming Community College District would project to lose about $2 million, but that doesn’t mean a straight slash of its bottom line.
“They won’t have as much as expense,” Blikre said. “Yes, they’ll have less money, but they’ll also have less expense.”
Blikre said the commission came to an understanding that the Northern Wyoming Community College District, after losing Gillette College, would operate with a smaller budget but also would be able to compensate for that by no longer having the expense that Gillette College carried.
“As a whole, all the community colleges are not funded as well as they need to be by the state and that’s a reality of our economic condition,” Blikre said.
With the Gillette College application clearing the Wyoming Community College Commission, the state Legislature now controls its fate.
This week, the Select Committee on Community College Funding Wasserburger co-chairs is going over two bills. One would allow Gillette College to become an independent district and the other would clarify and change the existing community college statute.
Current statute dictates that a community college district must tax 4 mills to receive state funding. Because of Campbell County’s assessed value standing far higher than other counties in the state, the committee is mulling over whether to allow a district to tax fewer mills on the condition it will not receive state funding.
“If we don’t receive any state funds, we’re totally self-sufficient within our own county and we believe that we would levy much less than 4 mills,” Wasserburger said.
He said the district would require closer to 2 mills of tax if the new bill would pass, making it easier to pass a vote in Campbell County.
If the committee passes the bill, it will then move to the the upcoming legislative session early next year. Even if it does not pass that, Wasserburger said he and Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, would sponsor the bill in the next session themselves.
“It doesn’t matter what happens,” Wasserburger said. “We’re carrying it. I think it’s positive from both committees, but if it hits a rocky road in one of those committees, Barlow and I are still going to carry it.”
Once it reaches the next legislative session, Wasserburger is bullish on its chances of going all the way to a public vote.
“I think we’re going to have strong support in the House and Senate,” Wasserburger said.
Once clearing the House, Senate and being signed by the governor, the bill would then circle back to the Campbell County Commission, which would decide on the language to use when it appears on a ballot for Campbell County voters, Wasserburger said.
The Wyoming Community College Commission’s decision was a big step forward for Campbell County’s movement of creating a district of its own.
“They found that Gillette College is essentially a standalone college without a governing board,” Wasserburger said. “At the end of the day, the decision was the money is there. Campbell County’s assessed valuation is more than enough to fund the college and there is all kinds of community support for the school.”
If the momentum carries forward, a vote on the formation of the Gillette College Community College District may be coming sometime next year.