Push To Legitimize Idaho Pot Is Up In Smoke . . . Again

Photo Credit: Josh Edelson

Once again, efforts to make medical marijuana legal in Idaho have collapsed.

Tesla Gillespie, president of the Idaho Medical Marijuana Association – an organization formed in the wake of past failed attempts – said that medical marijuana will not appear on the ballot this year. She has stopped collecting signatures and dissolved the group to care for her ailing son, she said.

But even if the effort had continued, Gillespie, a Boise massage therapist, said the group wasn’t sufficiently united, organized or funded to collect enough signatures. She said she doesn’t even know how many were collected before she quit, but they needed more than 56,000 by the April 30 deadline, according to state law.

“This is something I’ve never done in my life. I have no experience,” Gillespie acknowleged.

Idaho is surrounded by states that, to one degree or another, have embraced pot. In Washington, Oregon and Nevada, both recreational and medicinal marijuana are legal. It is legal for medical purposes in Montana. In Wyoming and Utah, a less-potent derivitive of cannabis, called cannabidiol, or CBD, is legal for people with certain medical conditions.

Yet in the gem state, efforts to ease some of the strictest pot laws in the country have consistantly foundered as elected officials – including Gov. Butch Otter – and state law enforcement groups have pushed back.

The Idaho Medical Marijuana Act

Idahoans have never voted on medical marijuana, with initiatives in 2012 and 2014 failing to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, and the 2016 initiative withdrawn before signatures were counted. It is unclear whether Idahoans oppose medical marijuana in numbers sufficient to keep it off the ballot, or whether proponents have simply failed to muster a competent campaign.

Each successive initiative effort proposed a more regulated system. The 2016 proposition sought the establishment of an industrial hemp industry and the decriminalization of personal possession of three ounces or less of marijuana. It went nowhere and those provisions were absent from the straightforward medical program proposed for this year’s ballot that has now been abandoned by organizers.

Based on the language of 2018’s proposed Idaho Medical Marijuana Act, those worried Idaho might see dispensaries pop up on street corners have nothing to fear. Low patient-to-provider ratios have existed in each year’s proposed initiative, with this year’s limits allowing up to three patients per provider.

Constrained by such limits, its unlikely the state could sustain much of an industry rivaling the likes of medical or recreational marijuana in neighboring states.

Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst for the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, said this year’s proposal is akin to legislation the organization helped draft for Idaho in 2010.

“The timeline is that these laws started heavy on individual protections with barely a mention of business,” he said. Now the proposals focus “more on the regulatory aspects.”

Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the organization, said the pro-legalization nonprofit worked with Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, on several doomed medical marijuana bills in 2010, and has provided small support to Idaho advocates.

Idaho has repeatedly failed in efforts to fundamentally change its marijuana policies, and other states have better odds this year of passing significant legislation. Fox said the organization is keeping its eye on Idaho, but not putting much effort behind this year’s legalization ballot.

Support from the organization was crucial to passing Colorado’s landmark recreational bill in 2012. The organization has since scaled that battle-tested strategy to pass similar legislation in multiple states.

After decades of repeatedly decriminalizing and recriminalizing marijuana, for example, Alaska voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2014 after a campaign led by the organization, which poured $700,000 into canvassing efforts that gathered 15,000 more signatures than needed to get the proposal on the ballot.

“While public support (in Idaho) may be increasing, the Legislature, governor and law enforcement are all heavily opposed to even extremely limited CBD bills, let alone a comprehensive medical marijuana program,” Fox said. “This makes achieving substantive marijuana policy reform more difficult in Idaho than most states.”

Idaho’s difficult ground game

Twelve years have passed since any proposed initiative has collected enough signatures to make it onto the November ballot in Idaho. State law requires proponents to collect 56,192 signatures – equal to 6 percent of registered voters.

Collecting signatures is difficult due to a distribution requirement stipulating that signatures reflect at least 6 percent of registered voters in at least 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. So instead of gathering most signatures on a busy Boise street corner or university towns, medical marijuana campaigners have to spend time and money hunting down signatures in sparsely populated areas.

“The medical marijuana issue has been around for years but apparently there is either not the support for legalizing it or (as this year) the petition gatherers are not willing to do the work to get the required number of signatures,” said Chief Deputy Secretary of State Timothy Hurst. “I’m sure the distribution requirements make gathering signatures more difficult, but that was the intent.”

Proponents of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes have struggled in the state Capitol as well.

Though the Republican-dominated Legislature voted to legalize CBD – a non-psychoactive marijuana and hemp compound – for epileptic children in 2015, Gov. Butch Otter vetoed the bill. Otter is not seeking re-election this year and all three frontrunners in the Republican gubernatorial primary support CBD but oppose medical and recreational marijuana.

Sen. Tony Potts, R-Idaho Falls, shepherded a CBD bill through the House this session with a veto-proof majority, but opposition from Republican party leaders and Otter essentially killed the Senate version in committee earlier this year after a closed-door meeting in violation of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law.

National context

Even if a medical marijuana initiative made it to the Idaho ballot and voters passed it, the Legislature could still repeal or sabotage a voter-passed medical marijuana program. That’s what happened in Montana in 2011 before a voter initiative returned patient access and established a new highly regulated program.

That Montana is so far the only state to attempt a repeal says much about the substance of the state’s original medical marijuana program, which was passed by voters in 2004 and contained little oversight, leading to exploitation, DEA raids and the repeal movement.

Forty-seven states have some sort of legal medical marijuana, leaving out only Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska.

Most states that legalized medical marijuana in the movement’s early years did so through ballot initiatives, as state legislatures were wary. State lawmakers have warmed to the issue in recent years and have passed medical programs in part thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2009 Ogden Memo, which gave states permission to regulate medical marijuana without fear of federal indictment.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since rescinded that memo (and another pertaining to recreational marijuana), but state medical programs are still protected under federal law by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which passed in March. The amendment must be passed every year during federal budgeting.

Vermont became the first and only state where lawmakers legalized recreational marijuana in the state legislature rather than by voter initiative. Every other state with recreational marijuana had laws passed through ballot initiatives.

The political conditions for Idaho to join the rest of America in legalizing medical marijuana may be ripening, but proponents have yet to take advantage of the opportunity.