CODY — Wyoming legislators are inundated daily by different voices and perspectives.
But it’s not often that they hear directly from the people who could be most affected by their work, especially when those constituents are still in high school and not even voting age.
However, for the better part of a quarter century, Cody High School’s Youth for Justice club has allowed some of Park County’s youngest and most passionate voices to be heard.
Even when legislators and students don’t see eye to eye, it’s still a powerful experience for all involved, advisor Deb White said.
“These kids are the experts on these bills, because they are in the school dealing with these things every day,” White said. “They are not paid lobbyists. They’re only doing this because they care. I think our legislators recognize and appreciate that, regardless of where they fall on the actual issues.”
Last week, 19 Youth for Justice students traveled to the state capitol to speak to legislators, Gov. Mark Gordon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder. The trip was a rewarding and eye-opening experience, junior Kelly Joyce said.
“It’s so cool that we’re high school students and we’re affecting statewide legislation,” Joyce said. “It’s awesome to continue the Youth for Justice legacy and try to make a difference.”
Freshman Sunday Schuh agreed.
“One thing Superintendent Degenfelder told us is that, since Wyoming is such a small state, our voices mean so much more than if we were in a larger state like New York or California,” Schuh said. “She really encouraged us to keep using our voices to speak out about the things that mattered most to us.”
This year, the CHS students spoke out for House Bill 137, which forbids the sale of cannabidiol products to — and purchase by — minors under the age of 21.
They also lobbied for House Bill 138, which requires one hour of age-appropriate suicide prevention education for middle school and high school students every school year.
Both bills were sponsored by Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, and developed with input from the Youth for Justice students.
House Bill 137 is inspired by increased Cody High School student usage and possession of Delta 8, a chemically modified version of hemp that is currently legal and available for purchase by students in Cody.
The product has not been evaluated or approved by the Federal Drug Administration for safe use in any context, the FDA website said.
Delta 8 is banned, regulated or restricted in 21 states where marijuana is legal, according to literature created by the Youth for Justice students, and it can cause impairment equivalent to standard marijuana, with the added danger of toxic chemicals that have been added to activate the cannabinoids.
“This school year, we have seen an increase of student suspensions due to the use and possession of Delta 8,” Cody High School Assistant Principal Beth Blatt said in the Youth for Justice literature about the bill. “... Our younger students are walking into the alleys around school and smoking Delta 8 during the lunch hour. On four separate occasions, students have come into the office ... asking for help because they feel out of control due to taking this drug. We sent these students with their parents to the emergency room.”
The bill would also provide cities and towns with the ability to regulate the sale of Delta 8 products, White said.
The Youth for Justice group recently appeared before the Cody City Council asking them to pass an ordinance banning the sale of smokable hemp products to those under the age of 21.
The council is unable to pass such an ordinance until House Bill 137 is passed, White said.
“Basically, the city council said, ‘We totally support you, but there is nothing we can do right now,’” White said. “That’s why we’re bringing the legislation forward.”
House Bill 138 addresses a public safety concern as well, junior Hunter Daley said.
“Wyoming is number one in the nation for suicides,” Daley said. “Everybody knows somebody who has either attempted or died by suicide. It touches us all.”
The bill would require all students in grades 6 to 12 to receive one hour of Question, Persuade, Refer training. This training has saved the lives of three Cody High School students, Daley said.
The students had a chance to talk about both bills with dozens of legislators, and also with Gordon and Degenfelder who shared support for the work they were doing.
“Both of the bills were well-received by the governor and the superintendent,” Schuh said. “That gave us a lot of leverage when we were lobbying.”
Students said their lobbying for the Delta 8 bill was particularly effective, with 43 House Representatives saying they would vote for the bill.
Getting support for the suicide prevention bill was harder, Joyce said.
“Everyone will say no drugs, but suicide is a much touchier issue,” Joyce said. “A lot of our legislators feel this is a problem, but just didn’t think this was the right solution.”
The students left every legislator with a packet of information, a thank you card and plenty to think about.
“One senator told us he would vote no for both bills, but five hours later, he came back and said ‘I thought about it, and I might actually vote yes,’” Joyce said. “I think us being there and showing we cared made the difference. It’s just really positive that young citizens are there, telling them what our thoughts and opinions are.”
Schuh agreed and said the students’ hard work spoke for itself.
“I don’t think we had to do any convincing or playing into anybody’s emotions,” Schuh said. “We had done the research and we had done the work, and that spoke for itself.”
This story was published on Jan. 22, 2023.