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Panel named by anti-marijuana Wyoming governor begins analysis of legal pot as petition looms

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Wyoming's anti-pot governor has a warning for a task force he's named to study the effects of legal marijuana: It CAN happen here.

Wyoming can't afford to ignore the problems other states' legal marijuana has caused, nor the ills yet to manifest should legalization happen in the Cowboy State, Gov. Matt Mead told his new Marijuana Impact Assessment Council on Wednesday.

Marijuana trafficking from legalization states has facilitated trafficking of other drugs, Mead told the council at its inaugural meeting.

"Once you can do that with marijuana, you can also do it with methamphetamine. You can do it with heroin. We are impacted — even if the law doesn't change one bit," he said.

The council met in a Cheyenne office building less than 10 miles north of a state where marijuana is legal. Colorado voters approved recreational marijuana in 2012 and it became legal at the onset of 2014. To date, 19 states have legalized medical marijuana and four states and the District of Columbia also have legalized recreational marijuana.

With the possible exception of Jackson Hole, Wyoming is known more as a Budweiser or whiskey state than one for toking up by the corral.

Might its libertarian, live-and-let-live attitude bring about legal marijuana nonetheless? The answer could come by the end of next year.

The Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, is preparing to circulate a petition to put medical marijuana before Wyoming voters in the 2016 general election.

The group plans to get the petition to all 23 Wyoming counties by Aug. 10.

"We have people traveling those roads. We've got a little Pony Express going on here — the NORML Express. Most of these people have been connected to us online for a long, long time," Wyoming NORML Director Chris Christian said Wednesday.

She's got her work cut out. Wyoming has some of the most restrictive ballot initiative requirements in the U.S.

The activists will have until Feb. 8 to collect at least 25,673 verified signatures, or 15 percent of Wyoming's registered voters at the time of the 2014 election. The signatures also must represent at least 15 percent of those voters in at least two-thirds, or 16, of Wyoming's counties.

"In Wyoming, it's a complicated process. It's hard for a grassroots effort, really, to get an initiative on the ballot," state Elections Director Peggy Nighswonger said.

The last time an initiative made the ballot in Wyoming was 1996, when 105,093 voters approved and 89,018 voters opposed a measure that involved congressional term limits. Despite a plurality of yes votes, the initiative failed because some people didn't vote either way and it needed a majority of the 215,844 votes cast that year to pass, according to the Wyoming Secretary of State's Office.

The last successful initiative in Wyoming, in 1991, tightened railway safety regulations.

Mead, a former U.S. attorney for Wyoming, doesn't equivocate: He opposes pot, period. The 20 council members include his appointed attorney general, Peter Michael, and an adviser, Michael Reed.

There are no pot activists on the council.

The council should look at how much revenue Colorado is realizing from pot sales versus how much it will have to spend on substance abuse treatment, Mead said.

"I think we need to continue to ask the question, how will this impact our kids?" said Mead.

"High usage over a very long period time — there are some very good studies about how IQ could be affected," concurred council member Steve Butler with the University of Wyoming's Survey and Analysis Center.

The council's final report, due in January, should include a section on the possible health benefits of marijuana as well as the non-benefits, said council Chairman Tom Forslund, director of the Wyoming Department of Health.

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