by Gavin Dahl, Boise Weekly
The Worldwide Marijuana March drew more than 300 demonstrators to downtown Boise on Saturday, May 2. Offering peace signs and garnering many supportive car honks, the marchers moved slowly under scattered showers along Capitol Boulevard to the front lawn of the Idaho Legislature.
Speakers addressed the mass on the grass under the watch of a Capitol Annex camera and a few security guards. Boise police did not engage the pungent assembly.
Rev. Levon Lion opened with a plea for support of religious cannabis use. He mentioned his organization, The Church of Cognitive Therapy, and touted the Omega-3 in edible hemp seeds, which he offered for tasting. Positioned in front of a “CREATE NEW JOBS” sign, he also spoke about hemp’s industrial value for paper, plastic, fiber and fuel.
Then Ryan Davidson, a “Ron Paul Republican” and marijuana activist from Garden City, announced through the bullhorn that Moscow Rep. Tom Trail plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill next year.
With public perceptions of marijuana prohibition shifting nationwide, in particular among traditionally anti-drug Republicans and security officials, Idaho could join the number of states loosening drug regulations. In 2006, then-gubernatorial candidate Butch Otter told Reason Magazine, “I still support medical marijuana,” though he told BW last week that he did not think Idaho would ever legalize and that he was not “desperate” enough for new revenue to pursue it. The Idaho Republican Party debated legalization last year, the citizens of Hailey voted twice in favor of three different cannabis initiatives, and budget woes have lawmakers scrambling for new sources of revenue.
Trail says there is currently no way to track the amount of marijuana grown in Idaho. California’s annual marijuana yield is often valued at $14 billion, nearly double the value of the state’s vegetable and grape crops combined. And the Web site marijuanalobby.org estimates that Idaho could net $12.4 million in new revenue from an 8 percent tax on medicinal marijuana and license fees.
Since 1996, voters have favored ballot initiatives removing criminal penalties for growing or possessing medical marijuana in Alaska, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. State legislators in Hawaii, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont have passed medical marijuana laws. On Nov. 4, Michigan became the 13th medical marijuana state and Massachusetts’ voters decriminalized personal possession.
Though he often votes with Democrats, Trail’s party affiliation and tenure in the Legislature have afforded him chairmanship of the Agricultural Affairs Committee. After three previous tries to allow growing industrial hemp in Idaho, Trail has shifted his focus to medical marijuana, which, as his bill posits, “humanitarian compassion necessitates” for sick constituents.
Trail’s draft bill seeks protection for qualified patients to smoke marijuana, and for designated providers and licensed physicians to grow and possess medical marijuana. Nonmedical acquisition, possession, manufacture, sale or use would remain illegal. The state would not be liable for ill effects of medical use and patients would be limited to 60-day supplies.
Sitting at his corner cubicle in the temporary Chairmen’s Suite before the close of the 2009 legislative session, the soft-spoken Trail described the plight of Moscow residents forced by Idaho law to travel to doctors in Washington, and then risk traveling back across state lines in possession of illegal medicine. Less than 3 ounces is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine up to $1,000. More than 3 ounces is a felony, five years and a fine up to $10,000.
It is a touchy subject for young voters, sick patients and several doctors who support Trail’s work because most feel they must remain anonymous. One Moscow-area doctor wrote a personal letter to Trail, arguing that any legislation is better than none.
The question now is whether Trail and the movement can convince state legislators to define and protect medical use of marijuana.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a fast-growing drug reform group, does not expect medical marijuana dispensaries to be politically viable in Idaho, and the Moscow doctor is concerned the current draft of Trail’s bill would limit the ability for “procuring medical marijuana for the patient who is not botanically gifted. Many appropriate patients are too sick to grow their own.”
In November 2008, Trail requested an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office on an early draft of his medical marijuana legislation. Deputy Attorney General William A. von Tagen responded in December 2008 with a preliminary opinion concluding that Trail’s bill would be pre-empted by federal law. The bill “would most likely be found to be in conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act,” von Tagen wrote.
American marijuana prohibition began in 1937. Since its heyday in 1970, the federal government has defined marijuana as having a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in treatment.
Yet, the American Academy of Family Physicians and half a dozen other national health organizations support access to cannabis for treatment of chemotherapy, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Crohn’s Disease, glaucoma, anorexia, migraines, menstrual pain and other conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control, annual deaths from cigarettes total 438,000. Alcohol deaths total 21,000. Marijuana deaths are zero.
In June 2008, the Idaho Republican platform committee considered making marijuana legal. Then a resolution surfaced to keep it illegal and use the full weight of the law to enforce prohibition.
“I was part of a group who said we should not treat them as criminals,” Rep. Steven Thayn said. “I got ribbed for opposing the anti-marijuana resolution, but not too much. I’m LDS, so I don’t drink alcohol or use any illegal drugs. It is certainly not something I’m trying to be out front on. I don’t think Idaho is ready.”
The final Idaho Republican platform adopted June 14, 2008, states, “We call upon our national, state and local leaders to refocus efforts in the war on drugs. We support creative alternative sentencing, such as drug courts, and treatment for non-violent offenders.”
Still, the GOP-dominated Idaho Legislature voted this year to cut $2.1 million for statewide substance abuse treatment.
Despite the opinion of the AG’s office, other states are not waiting for a change in federal law before expanding access to marijuana. Roughly 21,000 Oregonians now have cards authorizing medicinal use, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services. About 200,000 Californians have medical access.
According to a recent National Public Radio report, medical marijuana produced more than $100 million in tax revenue for the state of California in 2007.
On a much smaller scale, Nevada charges patients $50 for state ID application materials and then another $150 for processing. Colorado charges patients $90 to apply to their program. New Mexico has finalized regulations for state-licensed, nonprofit medical marijuana providers, making it the first state to do so.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron published a study reporting decriminalization would lead to a $29 million net improvement in the budget of Massachusetts by reducing expenditures on arrests.
“Decrim really has no effect on the number of prosecutions or number of prisoners,” Miron said. “The charges for which decrim might have been relevant do not lead to trials or jail time.”
In 2007, a record 872,000 Americans were arrested on suspicion of charges related to the plant, 89 percent for possession alone, according to the FBI. A new report from the University of Washington Law School* points out marijuana arrests accounted for nearly all of the increase in drug arrests from 1991 to 2005.
From 2005 to 2007, Idaho State Police arrests involving seizure of marijuana increased from 3,202 to 4,030.
Though Trail is not angling for an economic boon to the state, he may be successful in Idaho because of the Republican compassion platform, the states’ rights argument and the potential savings to the state. Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank do not agree on much else, but they agree the drug war is a failure.
The sour economy has even opened doors in the broadcast media that have been historically closed to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. NORML has discovered for the first time that it can purchase commercial packages on television networks including Animal Planet, CNN, ESPN, MSNBC, MTV and the Weather Channel for about 8 cents per 30-second ad.
One key objective for reform advocates is to help voters distinguish between lowest police priority (passed in Missoula County, Mont.), decriminalization (passed statewide in Massachusetts), and legalization and taxation (proposed in California for the first time this year).
In Idaho, it looks like the fight has begun with medical use. Davidson calls religious conservatives like Thayn brave.
“There’s a lot of pressure in that community not to be soft on drugs, and that’s why it won’t get legalized anytime soon. It’s also part of the position on hemp. You’ve got a large contingent that it may give the wrong impression to kids,” he said.
Steve D’Avanzo, owner of Treasure Valley Smoke Shop, doesn’t think he will be selling marijuana any time in the foreseeable future. “I’m sure that if Idaho ever legalized marijuana, they would have some sort of state store to dispense it,” he said. “I don’t think it would be something they would introduce to the retail market.”
Davidson also expressed skepticism about the political process in Idaho. “Butch was taking principled stands on stuff, like the Patriot Act. When he voted against it, he was like a hero, but now everyone feels like he’s kind of a sellout … I assume if the Legislature passed it, he would sign it, but nothing is about what you believe in. Are you strong enough to risk donors to do what you believe in?”