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Can New Approach Idaho Legalize Marijuana in the State?

Russ Belville

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With medical marijuana legal in Canada, Nevada, and Montana and recreational marijuana legal in Oregon and Washington, the state of Idaho is one of three Western states, along with Wyoming and Utah, which have staunchly resisted the growing support for marijuana legality. Now, a new group is adopting the framing tactics of successful legalization campaigns in Oregon and Washington by calling themselves New Approach Idaho.

The group’s first Facebook post dates back to July 19, but only now are the media beginning to report on their activities. The state’s largest paper, the Idaho Statesman, reports that “New Approach Idaho is … focused on allowing medical marijuana, but the long-term goal is full legalization.” The group consists of some former members of Compassionate Idaho, which lacked enough signatures to get medical marijuana on the ballot in the last election, and Moms for Marijuana International, which tried and failed in 2013 with medical marijuana.

The group faces a steep climb in getting Idahoans to recognize the futility of marijuana prohibition and the wisdom of taxing and regulating marijuana instead. The state has the second largest Mormon population in the country, with almost a quarter of Idahoans belonging to the Church of Latter Day Saints, according to a February Gallup poll. However, Mormons are over-represented in the state legislature, comprising more than a third of all lawmakers. The legislature is reliably super-majority Republican and regularly competes with Utah and Wyoming for the title of “Most Republican State Legislature” in the United States.

Chuck Winder (a Presbyterian) is a Republican state senator and sponsor of a 2013 marijuana resolution approved in a 29-5 vote by the state senate. In the resolution, Winder explained that “national pro-marijuana organizations have invested millions to push drug legalization in America, and have targeted Idaho for a ‘medical’ [his sarcasm quotes] marijuana initiative,” that legalization has led to “social, economic and legal chaos,” and that “drug legalization laws in neighboring states have already adversely impacted Idaho through cultural acceptance of drug use that reduces the perception of harm among children and increases drug use.” The resolution vowed that the state is opposed “to efforts to legalize marijuana for any purpose.”

Remember, marijuana is already quite illegal for any purpose in Idaho already — Idaho is one of three states (Wyoming, New Jersey) that offers a misdemeanor jail sentence for merely being high in public even without marijuana possession.  In Idaho, you can do three months in jail for merely being someplace where marijuana is stored, even if you never saw it or knew it was there. That resolution was 29 state senators going out of their way to insist that it remains that way. However, the people of Idaho may not be so diametrically opposed to marijuana use for any purpose. A 2010 poll found that 74 percent of Idahoans would support medical marijuana use by terminally ill or seriously ill patients.

Many of those Idahoans sought out medical marijuana in Oregon. Some, like myself and about a dozen other Idahoans I know, left the state of their birth and their families behind to move to Oregon or Washington to continue medical marijuana treatments for themselves of their loved ones. Others made use of the fact that Oregon is the only medical marijuana state that grants medical marijuana cards to out-of-state residents, traveling to Ontario, Oregon, a town on the Idaho/Oregon border just fifty miles from Boise, for their medical marijuana.

Bill Esbensen [disclosure: a friend of mine I used to play music with professionally in Idaho] was the owner/operator of The 45th Parallel, the dispensary in Ontario that used to service those Idaho medical marijuana refugees.  They were legal patients and so long as they possessed and used their medicine while in Oregon, they remained within the law. But, of course, some did not and returned to Idaho with their medicine, only to be busted by Idaho State Police focusing on that fifty-mile stretch of Interstate 84 leading from Ontario to Boise.  Somehow, there always seemed to be far more people with broken taillights, expired tags, or minor traffic infractions going eastbound on I-84 than westbound.

Esbensen was busted by Oregon cops who secured authentic driver’s licenses with fake names, used them and faked medical records to get authentic medical marijuana recommendations, and used those to get authentic medical marijuana cards.  Esbensen’s dispensary checked all IDs and cards, having no way of knowing the police were using fakes, and then traded them medical marijuana for a suggested reimbursement for supplies and utilities, all perfectly legal under the medical marijuana law.

But the prosecutor painted that as “sales” instead of “reimbursements” and Esbensen was convicted of felonies in very conservative Eastern Oregon. While Esbensen’s trial was ongoing, Oregon passed legislation that explicitly made legal all his activities, and legal dispensaries that operated just like his began opening while he sat for over four months in a prison cell.

Now Esbensen is one of the leaders of New Approach Idaho, telling the Statesman that Idahoans suffering from medical ailments shouldn’t have to worry about being arrested for possession. “If we regulate it, then much of it will be off the streets,” Esbensen said. “Prohibition has failed.”

Good luck, Bill, you’re going to need it in Idaho. That and a whole lot of money — you can help them by visiting New Approach Idaho on Facebook.

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