BOISE — As legal weed becomes a reality in every corner of the U.S., Idaho is putting up a fight.
State lawmakers on Friday moved forward with a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar the legalization of marijuana in Idaho in an attempt to keep the growing nationwide acceptance of the drug from seeping across its borders.
Idaho is one of only three states without some sort of policy allowing residents to possess products with even low amounts of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Residents can cross the state border in nearly every direction and find themselves in a place where marijuana can be bought for recreational or medicinal purposes. Support for medicinal marijuana use is growing among some residents — with legalization activists trying to get an initiative on the state ballot in 2022.
It’s made some lawmakers in the deep-red state nervous, particularly after voters in the neighboring state of Oregon decriminalized the personal possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine last November.
The joint resolution to ban all psychoactive drugs not already legal in Idaho won approval along a 6-2 party-line vote in the Senate State Affairs Committee. The list of substances would change for drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But the primary target over the two days of testimony on Monday and Friday was marijuana as Idaho finds itself surrounded by states that have legalized pot.
Washington, Oregon, Montana and Nevada have legalized recreational and medical marijuana, while Utah allows medical marijuana. Wyoming allows CBD products containing less than .3% of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.
CBD products can be purchased in Idaho, but they must contain no THC.
Backers said the Idaho Constitution needs to be changed because neighboring states, heavily influenced by out-of-state money, have approved marijuana use through voter initiatives, and it could happen in Idaho.
“When drugs are legalized that are currently illegal, it increases health care costs and crime,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Scott Grow, condemning both recreational and medical marijuana use. “This is about money. It’s not about caring for people who might have pain or sickness.”
Those opposed said medical marijuana is needed for Idaho residents suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses. Dan Zuckerman, medical director of St. Luke’s Cancer Institute, said dealing with over a thousand cancer patients over more than a decade convinced him of the efficacy of medical marijuana in helping with pain and nausea.
“I’ve seen it myself with my own eyes,” he said. “The data is clear that patients benefit from this.”
Sen. Michelle Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum, also noted that the amendment would prohibit doctors from providing terminally ill patients access to experimental or investigational drugs that are normally illegal but can still be prescribed in certain circumstances when other treatments have failed.
“Passing this would prohibit Idaho doctors and patients from making medical choices,” by banning new medical breakthroughs, Stennett said. “This is a direct impact on the ability of Idahoans to do good medical health care.”
Some lawmakers questioned whether the constitutional amendment could interfere with the legalization of industrial hemp, a potentially lucrative crop for farmers who have seen attempts to legalize the crop fail in recent years.
Both products are illegal in Idaho, but are legal federally as well as in most states.
Grow said there is additional legislation planned to legalize industrial hemp that he expects will pass this year.
The joint resolution would have to pass the Senate with a two-thirds majority. It would then go to the House, where it would also need a two-thirds majority. After that, it would go before voters in the November 2022 general election, requiring a simple majority to pass.
Thirty-six states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fifteen states and three territories have legalized recreational marijuana.
Keith Graves told the committee he was a member of a group of retired police officers in Idaho who left California, Washington and Oregon. He said those states went downhill with crime and other problems after legalizing marijuana.
“We’re from your future,” he told the committee. “This is the last fox hole. There’s nowhere else to go.”
Bill Esbensen is part of the Idaho Citizens Coalition working on an initiative that the group hopes to put before voters to legalize medical marijuana. He said the constitutional amendment would prohibit legalizing medical marijuana through an initiative, even though he said most people in the state want medical marijuana approved.
“You guys are so afraid of marijuana, you’re willing to blow up the state constitution,” he told lawmakers.
“This is the last fox hole. There’s nowhere else to go.”