Home News Idaho congress battles to determine state's future on marijuana

Idaho congress battles to determine state’s future on marijuana

Article written by Bailee Merrill and Jens Huber

On Jan. 29, the Idaho State Senate voted in favor for a proposed amendment to the Idaho State constitution which would ban the use of psychoactive drugs, largely targeting the use of medical and recreational marijuana.

The proposed amendment, State Joint Resolution (SJR) 101 bans the “production, manufacture, transportation, sale, delivery, dispensing, distribution, possession, or use of psychoactive drugs in the state of Idaho,” which also places roadblocks for the legalization of medical marijuana.

The legislative process isn’t completed for the bill; SJR 101 will now be proposed to the Idaho House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass. If the amendment gets a two-thirds vote from both the Senate and the House, it will then be presented to Idaho’s residents for their vote in the November 2022 general election.

Debate in the Senate

In the meeting, senate members discussed SJR 101 and what it would mean for the state of Idaho.

Making marijuana constitutionally illegal would prevent recreational marijuana from being legalized in the future through ballot initiatives.

“The key to understanding the question is FDA approval,” said Sen. Scott Grow in an email to Scroll. “The bill would have no effect on drugs approved by FDA — past, present, or future. The bill would limit usage of unapproved drugs.”

The majority of Idaho’s Senate will not consider legalizing medical marijuana until the FDA has approved it as an accepted drug, but even then, there are still constitutional statutes in place that would place the legal use of medical marijuana behind some administrative walls, according to some state senators, like Michelle Stennett.

As an opponent of the proposed amendment, Stennett said the overall change is unnecessary, as medical marijuana is already not permitted in the Idaho statutes. Furthermore, she explained that even with FDA approval, the proposed amendment would cause Idaho to lag behind other states as the legislature would have to go through the process of approving changes to the statutes and then put up a vote to the people. This could take years, according to Stennett, and could harm the health of those waiting for medical breakthroughs.

Some state senators commented on the threat that legalizing marijuana may have on Idaho’s culture.

“It makes it more difficult for outside influences of the recreational drug industry to change our culture,” Sen. Grow said about passing SJR 101. “The first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people and the purity of the home.”

The Idaho Constitution states, “it is sound public policy to promote the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Idaho through a drug-free environment where children, families, businesses, and communities can flourish.”

Grow continued to list ways that the culture could be changed due to acceptance of certain drugs.

“This results in increased societal problems such as addiction and homelessness, increased problems for our children with infant poisoning, school drop outs, depression, babies born with drug addiction, increased deaths and injuries from highway and industrial accidents, overdoses, increased family problems,” Grow said.

He continued to say that the culture of Idaho would not flourish unless it was sufficiently protected.

“I taught school for 35 years and I saw the lives of children be impacted so dramatically by parental use of drugs,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge. “I feel like the most important thing we can do as a society is to [give] our most precious resource, our children, the opportunities that they can obtain and become the very best that they can possibly be.”

Stennett shared some concerns about the implications of SJR 101.

“The other side of it is, we want to talk about controlling behaviors,” Stennett said. “You know, we like to talk about not doing anything in a pandemic about wearing masks and distancing which is a direct health crisis and we’re not controlling behavior, so why is it okay to control behavior over any future medical breakthroughs that might give people comfort or pain relief or might be curative that is psychoactive based or cannabis based? That’s a contradiction or hypocrisy in my mind. So which is it? Do we try to control behavior about everything or do we try to pick and choose what we control?”

Facts about marijuana and its legalization

In a research study released by the Idaho Office of Drug Policy, it was found that, “no state has passed a retail marijuana law without previously enacting a medical marijuana law.” Some state senators are concerned that legalizing medical marijuana in Idaho would eventually lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Medical and Recreational Usage of Marijuana by State
Medical and Recreational Usage of Marijuana by State Photo credit: National Conference of State Legislatures

As mentioned before, Idaho pushes against medical marijuana legalization without FDA approval. As of now, the FDA has approved one “cannabis-derived drug product” called Epidiolex, which is a form of cannabidiol, commonly referred to as “CBD oil”. This oil does not contain THC, the psychoactive element in cannabis that gives users a high. They have also approved three synthetic cannabis-derived drug products.

Researchers conducted a study exploring the effects Epidiolex would have on patients who had one of two severe forms of epilepsy: either Dravet or Lennox-Gastaut. It proved to be effective, with 43% of the patients with Dravet experiencing 50% reduction in seizures, and 44.2% of patients with Lennox-Gastaut also experiencing 50% reduction in seizures.

The Idaho Office of Drug Policy claims that, mainly in Colorado and Washington, the legalization of marijuana has had an overall impact of increased impaired driving, increase of minors’ usage of marijuana and increased poison control calls relating to marijuana usage.

Data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows increased usage among multiple young demographics.

Data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
Data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Photo credit: Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD & NSDUH

Marijuana use disorder also increased 0.7% for youth ages 12-17.

However, there are many studies that support the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana.

Peter Greenspoon, M.D., said in an article for Harvard Medical School that, though it isn’t strong enough to alleviate severe pain, it is beneficial to patients who have chronic pain. It is also seen as a safer alternative to opiates because it is less addictive and is “impossible to overdose on.” Additionally, in general it helps with multiple sclerosis and nerve pain. It also causes less lethargy in patients when used in comparison to opiates.

Kristeen Scherney, in an article for Healthline reviewed by Alan Carter, a licensed clinical pharmacist, listed pain management, reduced inflammation and sleep management among some of the general benefits that medical marijuana has had on patients.

Patient testimonials

“Many medications that have been shown effective have been used prior to FDA approval,” said a source who wishes to remain anonymous.

He is a marriage and family therapist in Utah who has been prescribed medical marijuana for PTSD, sleep and anxiety.

“For years I took traditional medicine like Ambien, other sleep aids, and Benzos. Messed me up really bad,” he said.

When he started taking medical marijuana, he said it was a “game-changer.”

“It was a huge benefit. I didn’t experience the dangerous side effects of Ambien and other medications I was taking. I actually sleep now.”

He shared how Ambien caused him to blackout and unconsciously send texts to family members — he didn’t feel connected to himself. He says that using THC properly, he feels more like himself; he’s fully cognizant and in control of his actions.

“I don’t lose who I am,” he shared.

He believes that legalization of the drug would help with more accurate regulations and dosages for patients, because at this point he believes there is a bit of guesswork involved, much like a person testing multiple antidepressants until they find the one that works for them.

Like any drug, medical marijuana does have side effects that can vary based on the strain and dosage. According to the Mayo Clinic , “medical marijuana is generally considered safe.” The main side effects are headaches, dry mouth and eyes, lightheadedness, drowsiness and fatigue. Benzodiazepines, a form of depressant drugs, side effects can be more dangerous, including sedation, dizziness, weakness, and unsteadiness. Opioid side effects can also include physical dependence and respiratory depression.

“Although marijuana can cause health problems if used in excess… there are no known cases of somebody dying from a marijuana overdose,” stated Dr. Thomas Strouse in a Healthline article. “The same cannot be said for opioids.”

In 2019, deaths from opioids reached 49,860.

While there have been, according to Medical News Today, “two cases of sudden death that doctors linked to health complications possibly worsened by marijuana use,” the number of deaths from medical marijuana is zero.

“I have a very, very hard time with Idaho’s stance on medical marijuana, especially their newest addition trying to outlaw it even if the FDA does approve it,” said an anonymous Idaho resident. “The science is there. It works, plain and simple. The fact that Idaho is keeping this life-saving medicine from those that need it is astounding. We know it helps, we know people need it, we know the benefits outweigh the risk.”

Both of these anonymous sources are active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Church has shared that it supports legal, regulated medical marijuana “when it is distributed correctly to people enduring chronic pain and suffering,” but not the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“I am an active church member, I am a mom, I am an Idaho citizen, and I use medical marijuana,” she said. It keeps me functioning while my body tries to shut down. I would not be the mother I am, the sister I am, the citizen I am without it. In fact, I would probably be in bed all day everyday in tears or asleep on painkillers without it.”

Both anonymous sources commented that church members using legal marijuana should not to be ashamed.

“We need to break that stigma,” she stated. “For those like me, we are more productive members of society and our homes by using it. If you’re in a legal state and use medical marijuana, please speak out. For those of us in illegal states, we need more positive publicity. We need to show the lawmakers that medical marijuana is good for people, communities, states, countries and the world.“

Incarceration for marijuana

Another main reason for the drive behind marijuana legalization, even in terms of recreational use, is the ethical implications of incarcerating or fining someone heavily for using the drug. According to many in favor of legalization, people should not be thrown in prison for using the drug medically or recreationally.

For example, in 2016, Sean Worsley, a disabled Iraq veteran, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for legally prescribed medical marijuana he had obtained from a prescription in Arizona, but possessed in Alabama. The prescription was to calm the nightmares he experienced from PTSD.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States.” Furthermore, the incarceration rates disproportionally affect Black people.

More data from the ACLU shows that Black people are 3.9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite equal rates of marijuana usage between white people and Black people. The highest disparity is right here in Madison County.

Stennett feels that a tough crackdown on marijuana is counterproductive.

“We have some of the largest amount of incarceration per capita in the nation, and we’re already farming it out to Texas and Colorado because we don’t have prison capacity,” Stennett said. So do we want to spend taxpayer dollars, on tens of thousands of dollars per inmate, over somebody who might have used even medical marijuana if it isn’t legal?… I think that zero tolerance is extraordinarily fiscally irresponsible because it’s so expensive and you’ve made criminals out of people who’ve done things just to help themselves medically. And is that where you want to head? I think that’s a large question of where we place our resources.”

Recreational legalization is still a long way away, according to the State Senator.

“I would love for Idaho not to be the only state that has yet to pass hemp and CBD oil first,” Stennett said. “We put ourselves at a medical and economic disadvantage if we’re not even following every other state in the nation on the federal farm bill. So I think we’ve got very basic hurdles first. I’d like to see hemp and CBD oil first, and then medical marijuana where you’ve got to go in front of a doctor and get a prescription… I think we need to get past the two basic ones before we talk about recreational.”

Moving forward

According to a statement on marijuana legalization, “The Idaho Office of Drug Policy is committed to its vision of an Idaho free from the devastating health, social and economic effects of substance abuse, ODP will continue to evaluate valid scientific research and advocate for drug policy that protects the health and safety of Idahoans.”

The Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee introduced a bill on Feb. 8 that would legalize medical marijuana with specific restrictions, only qualifying those “21 years or older who have one of 16 medical conditions would qualify for the program. That includes those with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis or certain terminal diseases.” If passed, Idaho voters would see the initiative on their ballot in 2022, although some activists do not see this happening in a state with some of the strictest marijuana laws.

“Let the citizens decide how this should move forward. So by their vote, our citizens will be the ones that will craft the blueprint in how we address drug policy going forward,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie.

The ongoing process of the status of SJR 101 can be found here.


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