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Why Medical Marijuana Legalization Has No Traction In Idaho

medical marijuana, pot
Audio Vision, Public Radio
Flickr Creative Commons
Various strains of medical marijuana on display at a California convention.

Four of Idaho's six neighboring states allow some form of legal marijuana use. Oregon, Nevada and Montana allow medical marijuana while Washington recently legalized pot for most residents. In each of those states, voters approved legalizing marijuana, but in Idaho, the issue has gotten nowhere.

We found out last month that organizers of an effort to get a medical pot initiative on Idaho’s ballot only had about 200 confirmed signatures after a year of trying. Now, it's up to 406 verified signatures.

About the time we learned how little progress Idaho’s medical pot initiative had made, Tim Hinterberger helped turn in stacks of petitions to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Alaska. Hinterberger is a University of Alaska biology professor and a leader of the group The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Alaska officials verified more than 36,000 of Hinterberger’s group’s signatures, more than enough to get an initiative on the ballot.

So far, 20 states, including Alaska, have legalized medical marijuana, some of which are Republican-dominated states. Now, Alaska may become the third state to fully legalize pot.

“If, or I should say when it passes, Alaska will be the first red state to (fully) legalize marijuana,” Hinterberger says.

Like Idaho, Alaska has a Republican-dominated Legislature and reliably votes for the Republican presidential candidate. Hinterberger says Alaska voters are pretty conservative, “but maybe in a more libertarian way than other parts of the country.”   

He’s not talking about the Libertarian Party, but libertarianism as a political philosophy some Republicans espouse. It includes things like very limited government, but also an emphasis on personal freedom and choice.

“But that’s not the brand of libertarianism here in Idaho,” says David Adler, head of Boise State University’s Andrus Center for Public Policy. “I think it’s important to understand the overlay of a particular brand of conservatism in this state which tends to trump libertarian instincts.”

Adler says that’s evident with the pot issue and a host of others, including gay rights.

“I think our brand emphasizes social conservatism and I think that is a function of major religious influences,” Adler says.

The top religious influence that makes Idaho so socially conservative, Adler says, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About of quarter of Idahoans are Mormons. And Adler says other religions, like Catholicism are also politically influential in Idaho and help give the state its social conservative emphasis.

Tom Trail spent 16 years in Idaho’s Legislature. The north Idaho Republican introduced multiple bills to legalize medical pot and industrial hemp, but found no support. He says Idaho’s GOP is dominated by what he calls socially-prioritized Republicans.

“The ideological focus is much more on the social issues than on jobs, education or transportation,” Trail says. “That’s what really lights them up.”

It’s hard to tell if the state’s population as a whole is quite as socially conservative as its policy makers. There is some evidence of public support for medical pot. A 2010 Boise State survey asked people if they supported changing Idaho law to allow terminally and seriously ill patients to use marijuana for medical use. Seventy four percent said 'yes.'

The same poll asked people a similar question, but left out the line about terminally and seriously ill patients. Only about 40 percent of respondents agreed.

No matter where public sentiment is, no initiative effort can work without significant organization and resources. Those are things the people pushing Idaho’s pot initiative lack. The group Compassionate Idaho has about five active members and not much money. In Alaska they had hundreds of volunteers, but organizer Tim Hinterberger admits they didn’t manage to gather many signatures. Those mostly came from paid gatherers. He says the initiative would not have worked without funding from the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.  

“We’re a national non-profit organization dedicated to the reform of marijuana laws,” Morgan Fox explains. “And we concentrate on state and federal lobbying and ballot initiatives.”

Fox says his group won’t be sending money to Idaho in the foreseeable future. The MPP will be funding an initiative soon in Arizona, a state that’s widely considered to be as conservative as Idaho. Arizona already allows medical pot, and Fox thinks it’s close to full legalization. He says there’s good polling data on public support and there’s already a strong grassroots organization.

“We’ve seen a lot of support among law enforcement and public health officials and lawmakers in Arizona that we just don’t have in Idaho,” Fox says.

The president of Idaho’s chiefs of police association says his group hasn’t taken a vote but he thinks most members are against legalizing medical pot. In 2013 Idaho’s Legislature passed a resolution which essentially said Idaho will never legalize marijuana for any reason.

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