The Quest to Pass Medical Cannabis in “Prohibition Island” Idaho

    “Idaho is what we call a prohibition island,” said Russ Belville. The state borders three others⁠—Oregon, Washington and Nevada—where cannabis is fully legal, as well as Canada. Idaho’s other three neighbors each have varying medical marijuana laws.

    Belville, a prominent cannabis activist and podcaster, is a spokesperson for the Idaho Cannabis Coalition, which is currently gathering signatures in an effort to put a medical cannabis legalization initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot. The proposed law would legalize up to four ounces of cannabis for medical use, with restrictions including a list of qualifying conditions. Currently, Idaho permits no form of cannabis whatsoever⁠—not even CBD derivatives.

    “I think to the Idahoans who oppose it, marijuana represents hippies, Vietnam, amnesty, abortion,” Belville told Filter. “Everything they hate about California and the coasts and liberals wrapped up in one pot leaf.”

    Yet this deep Red state also has a strong culture of cannabis use, he said—it just keeps a low profile.

    When Ontario, Oregon opened its first marijuana dispensaries right on the border with Idaho, Idahoans flocked across, Belville said. Before that, they would drive 90 minutes each way to Huntington, OR to buy cannabis from two dispensaries there. “You’d look in the parking lot, and almost all the license plates were from Idaho.” 

    Idaho’s cannabis activists have been trying to pass a medical cannabis law since 2010, but 2020 could be different. Belville said the success of adult-use legalization in neighboring states like Oregon is helping to strengthen the case, but he also highlighted some lower-profile reforms by another neighbor: Utah.

    “Utah is the state that’s most culturally and politically similar to Idaho,” he said. “And if they just passed medical cannabis, then it’s time for us to do the same in 2020.”

    The mission is personal for Belville. He recounted how his father, John, now a 77-year old peripheral neuropathy patient, first tried a CBD treatment in Oregon, and how it freed him from his pain for four hours. He otherwise takes a heavy regimen of prescription opioids.

    “My father has something that will kill his pain,” Belville said. “But if he uses it 35 miles over the border in his hometown, they’ll put him in prison. Idaho is going to kill my dad if I don’t get this law passed.” John is also the campaign’s chief petitioner.

    The biggest hurdle is the state’s ballot requirements. The campaign has to gather over 55,000 signatures, representing 6 percent of the state’s total voters and at least 18 of its 35 legislative districts.

    Earlier this year, Idaho legislators tried—but failed—to make the ballot initiative process even more difficult. That was in response to voters passing a state Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act by popular ballot in 2018, with 61 percent support.

    Belville is hopeful that despite all the barriers, activists will succeed in getting medical cannabis on the 2020 ballot and passed. He believes that Idaho’s citizens are much warmer to the idea than its conservative lawmakers.

    “The opposition claims they’re for ‘healthy kids and communities,’” he said. “They want to say it’s about public safety and addiction. But as we’ve seen from over 20 years and over 30 other legal states, everything they claim to fear hasn’t come true.”


    Photo of Russ Belville with his father and mother at the office of Idaho Secretary of State, courtesy of Russ Belville. 

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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