A Radical Thought: Idaho Needs a Decrim Initiative, Not Medical Marijuana

By “Radical Russ” Belville


August 18 – I just returned from my trip to Idaho to speak at the inaugural Boise Hempfest. Idaho is a deep red conservative state, surrounded on all sides by marijuana reform. Oregon and Washington to the west have legal marijuana. Nevada to the southwest has medical marijuana and will vote on legal marijuana this November. Montana to the east has limited medical marijuana that they will vote to expand this November. Even conservative Utah and Wyoming to the southeast have allowed for epileptic children to use CBD oil. To the north, the nation of Canada has medical marijuana and will legalize soon.

Radical Russ Belville and Bill Esbensen
“Radical” Russ Belville and Bill Esbensen, Idaho’s leading marijuana activist. He also was imprisoned for operating the 45th Parallel in Ontario in 2012.

Idaho is seriously anti-pot. The state is one of three (Wyoming, New Jersey) that have a misdemeanor crime on the books for merely being high in public. A few years ago, the state senate debated a resolution that affirmed the state will never, ever legalize marijuana for any purpose whatsoever, and it passed 29-5. However, that same senate was so moved by the sight of epileptic children being healed with CBD oil that they passed a bill to allow just that, only to have Idaho Gov. Butch Otter veto it.

Idaho is one of seven states remaining that have no legalization, medical marijuana, CBD oil, or decriminalization statutes. Two of those states, Arkansas and North Dakota, will be voting on medical marijuana this fall. Two others, Indiana and West Virginia, have industrial hemp laws. In 2017, Idaho could be alongside South Dakota and Kansas as the only remaining states that prohibit every form of cannabis in every circumstance for every person.

There is already political movement in Idaho on the CBD issue. The governor was so publicly shamed for his CBD veto that he issued an executive order allowing for a trial of CBD oil for 25 children. If the CBD bill should make it through the legislature again, there’s a good chance Gov. Otter may sign it, if only to undermine any progress local activists might have in getting medical marijuana on the ballot.

Butch Otter Willie Nelson Boise Idaho Decrim marijuana cannabis
Idaho Governor Clement L. “Butch” Otter and the renowned stoner Willie Nelson, on Willies Bus. Image: 43rd State Blues

There’s an old saying Idahoans are proud of: “Idaho is what America was”. They take that as a compliment, not an indictment of their retrograde conservative politics and white Christian identity. Unfortunately, Idaho’s marijuana activists think Idaho is where America was in 1996, ready to pass a medical marijuana law.

I understand why Idaho’s activists want to move forward with a medical marijuana initiative. Polls show people support medical use, even in Idaho it’s in the seventy-percent range. When you live in a repressive culture like Idaho, it’s easier to promote oneself as a patient or as fighting for patients. The medical marijuana battle evokes compassion instead of the derision Idahoans maintain for potheads.

But when you have to approach Idahoans on medical marijuana, many of them are just going to think, “Bullshit, they called it ‘medical marijuana’ on the West Coast, and look how that turned out.” The “medical marijuana” they support in polls is an idealized vision of their grandma needing it for cancer who has someone growing it for her on the sly, not the West Coast’s proliferation of pot shops, pot billboards, and pot festivals.

So to pass a medical marijuana initiative in Idaho, you’ll need to write up one of those airtight no-smoking no-home-grow type of laws like we’ve seen in New York, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. But those laws are so restrictive and impractical it is hard to get grassroots activists behind them and Idaho is too small a market to expect national organizations and big funders to support reform there any time soon.

idaho decriminalization, decrim, marijuana, cannabis, medical, russ belville
Most of Idaho is bordered by medical or adult use marijuana states.

I think Idaho is where America was all right, but that’s 1976, not 1996. The fight in Idaho should be for decriminalization of an ounce, like states passed in the 1970s. With decrim, you get to convince Idahoans that they aren’t opening the floodgates to rampant marijuana abuse. Instead, you’re acknowledging the reality that the state is surrounded by legal and medical marijuana. You could ask voters why they should keep wasting Idaho taxpayers’ money and police, crime lab, court, jail, and probation time on some out-of-state traveler with a little weed on them?

You could establish decrim as the smart answer to what Idahoans believe is a flood of marijuana coming across the western border. Set the fine higher for those without local IDs and sell it as a way to punish those who don’t respect Idaho law. Idahoans would also buy decrim as removing the criminal record aspect of a marijuana violation that makes it harder for that person to “go straight”.

Then, within that decriminalization, establish an affirmative defense to the fine for anyone who can show a doctor’s recommendation for medical cannabis use. This decrim would still leave patients without safe access to their medicine, growers subject to felonies, and consumers without a shop, but at least functionally, Idaho law would not be able to punish a patient caught with a personal amount and other consumers would only get a fine, not a criminal record.

The deficiencies in the law will then create the political friction needed to work for a better medical marijuana law, since you got the voters to commit to the idea that medical users shouldn’t be punished in the decrim initiative. You’ve got to present the voters an initiative they’re ready to vote for, then build on those successes.


“Radical” Russ Belville

Host of The Russ Belville Show at http://RadicalRuss.com
LIVE Weekdays at 3pm Pacific on 

© 2016 Oregon Cannabis Connection. All rights reserved.

"Radical" Russ Belville

Russ Belville is the host of The Russ Belville Show on www.cannabisradio.com, a founder of Portland NORML, the former Outreach Coordinator for national NORML and former host of The Daily Audio Stash (podcasts for national NORML).

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