A customer receives their order from an employee at Apothecarium Dispensary on April 21, 2022, in Maplewood, New Jersey. That day marked the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in the state of New Jersey. Voters in the state approved the legalization in November 2020. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Despite public support and more than 10 years worth of efforts to create medical marijuana programs in Idaho — through bills before the Idaho Legislature and petitions seeking to qualify ballot initiatives for an election — all have failed.
The 2023 session was no different.
The only cannabis bill introduced during the Idaho Legislature’s recent 2023 legislative session was designed to start a discussion but not be enacted into law.
On March 24, during the final two weeks of the session, House Health and Welfare Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, introduced House Bill 370, the Idaho Medical Cannabis Act, as a personal bill.
That means Vander Woude introduced the bill outside of the committee process, knowing, based on traditions and new rules in the Idaho Legislature, that the bill would have no chance of advancing.
Idaho is unique among most of its neighboring states for not having any kind of medical or recreational marijuana program in place. Utah allows medical marijuana and Oregon, Washington, Montana and Nevada offer recreational marijuana.
Wyoming joins Idaho in criminalizing marijuana.
Under Vander Woude’s bill, Idaho patients diagnosed with a serious medical condition such as cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, wasting syndrome, epilepsy, debilitating seizures and more would have been eligible for a medical cannabis card that would be valid for one year and would be renewable.
Vander Woude’s bill would have also treated cannabis differently than most other states. It defined medical cannabis as ingestible and processed into chewable, droplet, pill or table format limited to 10 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Patients would be required to obtain marijuana from an Idaho licensed pharmacist, as opposed to the dispensary process now common in other states, including Idaho’s neighbors.
Under the bill, smoking or vaping cannabis would have remained illegal, and marijuana in its raw form would have also remained illegal.
Multiple efforts to reach Vander Woude over the phone and via email were unsuccessful.
Recent public polls, including a 2022 Survey USA/Idaho Statesman poll show that nearly 70% of Idahoans would support a medical marijuana program.
But nobody talked about Vander Woude’s bill during the session.
It was introduced without any advance public notice or publicity and died when the session adjourned April 6.
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Idaho has a history of medical marijuana bills failing to pass
Vander Woude’s bill wasn’t the first or most serious effort to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho.
In 2012, former state Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, introduced a medical marijuana bill that never passed.
More recently, Reps. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, and Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, introduced the bipartisan House Bill 108, the Sgt. Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act in 2021, which was named for a U. S. Air Force veteran with terminal cancer.
The House Health and Welfare Committee voted to introduce the bill, but it never received a full hearing and died.
“I don’t think Idaho is in a very good place right now,” Rubel said in a telephone interview. “I think we are real laggards (compared to the rest of the country and Idaho’s neighboring states).”
Rubel says Idaho should reform its marijuana laws for several reasons. She said many patients with terminal or chronic conditions would be better off using marijuana to address their pain than the opioids they may have a prescription for. She also said it is not a good use of state resources to pursue and prosecute individuals for personal, recreational possession of marijuana. Even for offenders who don’t serve prison or jail time, Rubel said a simple marijuana possession bust can come with enormous human costs, including preventing Idahoans from getting into college, graduate school or law school. A marijuana conviction can also block people from obtaining housing or landing jobs they are qualified for.
Despite her efforts, Rubel is discouraged and doesn’t see the Idaho Legislature doing anything to allow medical marijuana or decriminalize marijuana anytime soon.
“This is one of the many areas where the supermajority Republican-dominated Legislature is out of step with the desires of Idahoans,” Rubel said. “Even if there is action at the federal level, I am not very optimistic. This just seems to be a place where the GOP supermajority has really dug in.”
Rubel noted that even after hemp was legalized federally, Idaho continued to criminalize it. After hemp was legalized federally in the 2018 farm bill, three truck drivers were arrested for transporting hemp through Idaho. Initially, the truck drivers faced felony chargers, which were later reduced or altered as part of a plea agreement, the Idaho Statesman reported. Idaho later became the 50th state to legalize industrial hemp two years ago.
While Rubel and Kingsley pushed their bipartisan medical marijuana bill in the Idaho House in 2021, the Idaho Senate pushed in the opposite direction. The Idaho Senate voted 24-11 to pass a proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution called Senate Joint Resolution 101. That resolution was designed to amend the Idaho Constitution to specify and reinforce that psychoactive drugs, including marijuana, are illegal in Idaho. Although it passed the Idaho Senate, the Idaho House never voted on Senate Joint Resolution 101, and the amendment died at the end of the 2021 legislative session.
Community Coalitions of Idaho oppose Idaho’s recent medical marijuana bill
David Phillips, the executive director of Community Coalitions of Idaho, called Vander Woude’s bill counterproductive. Community Coalitions of Idaho is a nonprofit organization that works to prevent substance abuse in Idaho.
“Idaho has enjoyed a reputation of being very resistant to legalization,” Phillips wrote in an email to the Idaho Capital Sun after it wrote about Vander Woude’s bill being introduced. “This has kept big money donors out of Idaho. Bills like these are counterproductive to what Idahoans have worked so hard to protect here.”
In a follow up telephone interview with the Sun, Phillips said he was surprised to see Vander Woude’s bill surface so late in the session and be sponsored by Vander Woude. Phillips was under the impression the House Health and Welfare Committee did not have an appetite to move forward with medical marijuana bills, so he was surprised to see the committee chairman introduce it.
Phillips opposes a medical marijuana program unless or until marijuana is cleared medically by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is available to be prescribed through pharmacies.
Phillips said one of the dangers of legalizing medical marijuana or even using the terminology “medical marijuana” is that doing so sends a message to young people that marijuana is medicine and has no dangers or side effects.
Phillips also said passing a medical marijuana program would open the door to going beyond the restrictions Vander Woude outlined.
“… This industry is one that once it gets its foot in the door, it uses that perceived weakness as an opportunity to kick the door in,” Phillips wrote in the email to the Sun.
Medical marijuana advocates hoping to qualify ballot initiative for 2024 election
With the Idaho Legislature not enacting cannabis policy changes, different organizers have attempted to run medical marijuana ballot initiatives during every election cycle since at least 2012. Each of those petitions failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, including the most recent 2022 effort, according to online records posted by the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.
To qualify for the ballot and go before voters in an election, petitions must gather written signatures from at least 6% of registered voters statewide and 6% of registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.
In November, organizers with Kind Idaho launched a new petition attempting to get a medical marijuana ballot initiative on the November 2024 ballot in Idaho. It is the same initiative as the 2022 initiative that did not qualify for the ballot.
The initiative would create a medical marijuana program for qualifying patients with a terminal illness or chronic disease or illness. The initiative would also protect the participants, caregivers, growers and agents of medical marijuana organizations from civil and criminal punishments. Unlike Vander Woude’s recent bill in the Idaho Legislature, the initiative would not limit cannabis to ingestible, edible, tablet or pill form. The initiative defines marijuana as all parts of the cannabis plant, including its seeds and any resin extracted. Qualifying patients and caregivers would be allowed to possess four ounces of marijuana. Patients who qualify for a hardship cultivation designation would be able to grow six marijuana plants in an enclosed, locked facility.
Joe Evans, the treasurer of Kind Idaho, said he got involved with Kind Idaho in 2021 to push for patients to have access to medical marijuana because he knew the Idaho Legislature wouldn’t pass a program.
“My honest onion is our legislators tend to believe they know better for us than we do,” Evans said in a telephone interview. “They consistently go in and start their discussions with the presumption that they know more than we do, whether or not they know about our situations and conditions or not.”
Evans said the 2022 initiative was unsuccessful because many large public gatherings, events and venues were restricted or closed due to COVID-19 safeguards during the run up to the election when organizers were trying to gather signatures. Evans also said Kind Idaho had not yet developed a sophisticated social media presence to get the word out about the initiative.
With more large public gatherings taking place, Evans thinks Kind Idaho organizers will encounter enthusiastic voters to sign their petitions, with many coming from counties within short drives of marijuana dispensaries in neighboring states that are already attracting Idaho customers.
Evans expects the overall public to be very receptive to creating a medical marijuana program.
For example, a 2022 SurveyUSA poll conducted for the Idaho Statesman found that 68% believe that marijuana for medical purposes should be legal in Idaho. The Idaho Statesman reported a similar 2019 survey found that 72% of those surveyed supported medical marijuana.
Kind Idaho organizers have until April 2024, to gather signatures and meet the 6% of registered voters threshold across the state and in 18 legislative districts. If the initiative makes it on to the November 2024 ballot, it would take a simple majority of Idaho voters to approve it.
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