Idaho politicians ready to ‘blow up the state constitution’ to prevent legalization

Published on February 1, 2021
In this 2019 file photo, legal cannabis products line a display case at a store in Seattle. A proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent the legalization of marijuana in Idaho has moved forward as lawmakers in the conservative state try to halt the increasing acceptance of the drug nationwide. The Senate State Affairs Committee voted Wednesday,Jan. 27, 2021, to approve a joint resolution that bans all psychoactive drugs not already legal in Idaho. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

BOISE, Idaho — As legal marijuana becomes a reality in every corner of the US, a cadre of prohibitionists in Idaho is putting up a fight.

72% of Idaho residents support medical marijuana legalization. Lawmakers in Boise are telling them they’re wrong.

State lawmakers last week moved forward with a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar the legalization of cannabis in Idaho in an attempt to keep the growing nationwide acceptance of the drug from seeping across its borders.

Idahoans shopping in Oregon, Washington, and Montana

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 cannabis. 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.

In fact, thousands of Idahoans already flock to legal cannabis stores across the state border in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Marijuana is legal to possess and sell in those states, for all adults 21 and older.

72% of Idahoans support medical legalization

Support for medical marijuana use has grown among many residents, with a 2019 poll showing 72% support among Idaho voters for medical legalization. That tracks with similar levels of support in traditionally conservative states like South Dakota and Mississippi, both of which passed statewide legalization initiatives with overwhelming support last November.

Local legalization activists are currently working to get an initiative on the state ballot in 2022. That’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. 

Idaho marijuana laws

Legislators disagree with their constituents

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 last week was marijuana.

Idaho finds itself surrounded by states that have legalized cannabis. Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Nevada have legalized adult-use and medical marijuana, while Utah allows medical marijuana. Wyoming allows CBD products containing less than .3% of THC.

CBD products can be purchased in Idaho, but they must contain no THC whatsoever. 

Idahoans Flock to Cannabis Shop on Oregon–Idaho Border

37 states have legalized medical marijuana

Backers of the move said the Idaho Constitution needs to be changed because neighboring states have approved marijuana use through voter initiatives, and it could happen in Idaho. 

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The resolution’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Scott Grow, claimed that “when drugs are legalized that are currently illegal, it increases health care costs and crime.”

Contrary to Grow’s claim, however, studies have found no increase in health care costs related to marijuana legalization. In fact, numerous studies have documented the decreased use, harm, and cost of opioid use in states that legalize cannabis for medical and/or adult-use. The legalization of medical marijuana has allowed many chronic pain and PTSD patients to substitute cannabis for opioid prescriptions, lowering both costs and the risk of overdose and death.

Leafly study debunks dispensary myths around crime & teen use

Studies have also found that cannabis legalization stops thousands of criminal possession arrests every year, allowing police to use their time and budget to focus on crimes that harm people.

“This is about money,” added state Sen. Grow. “It’s not about caring for people who might have pain or sickness.”

Those opposed to the proposed constitutional ban 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 more than 1,000 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,” said Zuckerman. “The data is clear that patients benefit from this.”

Bill would hurt terminally ill patients

Sen. Michelle Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum, 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.

Opponents of the ban also questioned whether the amendment would ban CBD oil containing small amounts of THC. 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.

Long road before bill could become law

The proposed constitutional amendment 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 Nov. 2022 general election, and require a simple majority to pass. 

Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana programs. Fifteen states and three territories have legalized cannabis for all adults age 21 and older.

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.”

Research shows little to no negative effects

In fact, research into crime and other questions has found just the opposite. In a 2019 review of 42 key peer-reviewed studies, Leafly’s team of data analysts, researchers, and editors found that the broad body of published research suggests crime near licensed dispensaries has generally stayed flat or decreased. Teen cannabis use in legalization states has fallen since legalization. And property values near cannabis outlets generally are not affected or even rise.

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.

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The Associated Press and Leafly Staff
The Associated Press and Leafly Staff
The AP is one of the world's largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. Leafly news staff members also contributed to this report.
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