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Seeds of Change? 

Unlike its neighbors to the west, Idaho has resisted loosening its cannabis laws. Could that be changing?

click to enlarge Serra Frank, a Boise-based cannabis legalization activist, hopes to make Idaho more like neighboring states that have relaxed their pot laws.
  • Serra Frank, a Boise-based cannabis legalization activist, hopes to make Idaho more like neighboring states that have relaxed their pot laws.

On one side of an imaginary line, adults are mostly free to possess and consume cannabis. But on the other side, the same activities can result in arrest, court dates and a criminal record.

Idaho is one of the most anti-marijuana states in the western U.S. It has no medical marijuana law and possession is a misdemeanor offense, a vastly different approach from neighboring Washington and Oregon, which have both legalized the drug for recreational purposes.

Last year, Gov. Butch Otter vetoed a narrowly crafted bill that would allow children suffering from severe seizures to be treated with cannabidiol oil (CBD), a marijuana byproduct that contains none of the plant's psychoactive properties and has been approved in other pot-adverse states, including Utah and Alabama. Lawmakers have shown no appetite for full-blown legalization. This spring a ballot initiative, sponsored by a group called New Approach Idaho, that would have decriminalized pot and created a medical marijuana program was withdrawn after the American Academy of Pediatrics asked that its name be removed from the front page of the petition that claim it is a supporter of medicinal cannabis.

Despite the state's stridently anti-pot climate, there are activities that could change attitudes regarding the drug.

GRASSROOTS

"Most of the people I meet are for marijuana," says Serra Frank, a Boise-based marijuana activist and cofounder of New Approach Idaho. "It is only legislators and officials who are against it."

Frank says that although her group's initiative petition failed, it still received more than 20,000 signatures, putting it on its way to the 47,623 valid signatures needed to qualify it for the ballot. "It was actually a really big success because we got the awareness out there," she says.

Currently, she says, marijuana activists, working as part of a new group called the Idaho Medical Marijuana Association, are preparing a new initiative petition that could be ready this summer which will focus exclusively on creating a medical cannabis program in Idaho.

A poll released last year by Idaho Politics Weekly found that a majority of Idahoans oppose legalization, but other polls indicate support for medical marijuana. However, Idaho has a higher threshold to qualify initiatives than states such as Oregon. Idaho also requires 6 percent of the voting population in 18 of the state's 35 legislative districts to sign a petition for it to qualify.

A NEW DRUG

After vetoing a bill that would have allowed CBD oil to be used to treat children suffering from debilitating seizures, Otter issued an executive order allowing 25 children with severe epilepsy to use an experimental drug derived from marijuana.

According to Elisha Figueroa, an administrator with the Idaho Office of Drug Policy, that drug is called Epidiolex and contains non-psychoactive CBD. Currently, it's under review by the Food and Drug Administration, and studies have shown it to be effective.

"There are 24 children in the program who are receiving Epidiolex," Figueroa says by email. "In mid-May, 15 additional spots were requested and granted to Idaho, and we hope those will soon be filled. All children receive the medication; no children receive a placebo."

SPEAKING OF CBD...

Joel Bordeaux, a Sandpoint-based real estate investor, says that shortly after Washington legalized marijuana, he realized two important limitations of legal pot: The drug can't be taken out of the state and not everyone is interested in using the plant to get high.

Earlier this year, he co-founded Global CBD in Sandpoint, which makes CBD vapors and tinctures. He says his product is made from the stalks and stems of organic hemp (a relative of cannabis) shipped in from Switzerland in a powderized form. Bordeaux says that his product is completely legal, which gives him opportunities not present in medical marijuana markets.

"We can ship to Canada; we can ship to Taiwan," he says. "There are no barriers."

Because CBD hasn't been approved for medical purposes by the FDA, Bordeaux won't make any claims about his product's effects. However, preliminary research suggests that CBD can help with ailments ranging from everyday aches and pains to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Idaho may never legalize pot, ever," says Bordeaux. "So my company is a smart move." ♦


LEGALIZATION

More states are voting on recreational pot, and the presidential election could change things.

When California voters made the Golden State the first to allow the medical use of marijuana in 1996, it was only a matter of time before other states followed their lead. As of this June, when Ohio adopted medical marijuana, more than half of the country's states endorse medical cannabis — Ohio was the 26th.

One might expect a similar slow growth in recreational cannabis, considering that Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia have already followed the lead of Colorado and Washington voters who decided in 2012 to legalize it. Indeed, a few states are slated to consider recreational pot on this year's ballots, including California, Nevada and Maine. Pro-legalization forces in Arizona and Massachusetts might get the issue on the ballot as well, depending on their signature-gathering success.

The wild card, of course, is the presidential election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. While recreational marijuana is unlikely to be a major issue in the candidates' debates or policy speeches, the typically higher voter turnout in presidential election years could mean that legalization advocates have more people to reach during the campaign. Clinton, if elected, might be expected to continue the Obama administration's hands-off approach to dealing with states that choose to allow medical and/or recreation marijuana — despite federal law still considering marijuana a Schedule I drug. Trump has one of the country's loudest anti-legalization advocates angling to be his attorney general in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

In Congress, marijuana continues to be a political football. Efforts to make veterans eligible for medical marijuana through the Veterans Administration hit a wall when the Veterans Equal Access Amendment was stripped from a spending bill in late June. Some legislators are also pushing the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2016, which would allow the Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct tests on pot's medical efficacy under less restriction.

— DAN NAILEN

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