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‘It’s time’: Medical marijuana activists in Idaho fight uphill battle for 2022 initiative

In April 1990, Jackee Winters and her 2-year-old daughter, Autumn, were driving in their new black Mitsubishi truck when they got hit by a car.

Autumn died that day. Winters was in a coma for a few days and needed to relearn how to speak and walk. Doctors reconstructed her chest after the steering wheel damaged it and bruised her heart.

Winters, who now lives in Idaho City, was eventually diagnosed with depression, and the accident left her with disabilities, pain and nightmares that she has battled since then. She takes a variety of medications for her mental health and traumatic brain injury, according to medical documents.

 

On a vacation to Oregon several years ago, Winters said she tried marijuana. She said she slept soundly that night. And when her teenage daughter was battling brain cancer, she took her to Oregon to let her also try cannabis. Winters said it relieved her daughter’s pain.

Winters’ daughter is now in remission. Winters said she thought about moving out of the state to access medical cannabis, but she grew up in Boise and loves the area. If her daughter’s cancer ever returned, Winters said she’d likely want to move.

 

“I was just disgusted,” Winters said over the phone last week. “Can you imagine not being able to treat yourself the way you would like, suffering?”

Winters is now the chief petitioner for a petition to put a medical marijuana initiative on the statewide ballot in November 2022.

 

Organizers with Kind Idaho, a cannabis advocacy group, will need to gather at least about 65,000 signatures by April 30, 2022. With about 10-20% of signatures usually rejected, the target number of signatures would be closer to 75,000, said Chad Houck, Idaho chief deputy Secretary of State. Election officials gave activists approval to start gathering signatures for the Idaho Medical Marijuana Act last month.

The initiative, if passed by a simple majority of Idaho voters, would allow patients 21 years or older, with a debilitating medical condition and a practitioner’s recommendation, to register for a medical cannabis card issued by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The card would allow someone to carry up to 4 ounces of marijuana.

The measure would also allow someone with a “hardship cultivation designation” — a financial hardship or physical limitation to accessing a marijuana dispensary — to grow up to six marijuana plants in a locked and enclosed facility.

Idaho is surrounded by border states that have legalized the drug in some capacity, with the exception of Wyoming.

Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana have legalized recreational and medical pot, while Utah allows only medical marijuana. Voters in more conservative states, such as South Dakota and Arizona, approved recreational use during the November election. A total of 36 states have approved medical marijuana use, while 15 allow recreational use.

Winters said she would never bring pot from another state back to Idaho if it wasn’t legal. She said she believes people need choices.

“I’m not a lawbreaker,” Winters said. “Idaho makes you a criminal if you have medical issues and you want some other choices. The people need to have choices.”

 

Kind Idaho hopes to gather enough signatures across Idaho for a petition to place the legalization of medical marijuana on the general election ballot in 2022. Idaho legislators are currently in the process of making that initiative process harder by requiring that they gather signatures from 6% of all legislative districts. | Darin Oswald, DOSWALD@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM

PATIENTS FIND RELIEF THROUGH CANNABIS

Tracie Carlson, a 60-year-old Hailey resident and a volunteer for the initiative, has battled painful migraines ever since she can remember. Her first memory of the condition was when she was 3.

She said she tried everything — she had sinus surgery and a tooth pulled, thinking maybe those caused the pain. She shared medical records of the doctor’s notes outlining her condition. She had spent thousands of dollars, she said, over decades of her life trying to alleviate her suffering. Of all the prescription medications her doctors suggested, Demerol was the most helpful. But it changed her, she said, and put her in a fog.

She would lose weeks of work a year because of her migraines. At times, she said, the pain was so intense, it drove her to the brink of suicide. Several years ago, she began to search online resources on how to kill herself. She recalled a moment, several years ago, when she drove by a hospital as she suffered from another intense migraine.

“I remember thinking, ‘God please take me,’ ” Carlson said. “ ’Just please take me. I’m ready.’”

Now, Carlson is off all prescription medication. She said she gets her marijuana in Ontario, Oregon, less than a one-hour drive from Meridian, where her daughter lives.

“The answer was always right there,” Carlson said. “I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been in my life.”

BELVILLE JOINS LATEST EFFORT AFTER 2020 INITIATIVE ATTEMPT

Russ Belville, a prominent marijuana activist in Idaho, said he left the state in 2003 and moved to Portland when his wife needed access to medical cannabis.

He returned to Idaho in 2018 to advocate for pot for his father, now a 79-year-old cancer patient in Nampa, who became the chief petitioner of an initiative attempt in 2019 and 2020.

With marijuana advocacy group Idaho Citizens Coalition — also known as the Idaho Cannabis Coalition — Belville said activists gathered more than 40,000 signatures early last year. They needed a little over 55,000 signatures, from at least 18 legislative districts, by April 30, 2020. And then the pandemic hit.

Belville considered an attempt for a recreational marijuana bill in Idaho for the 2022 ballot but decided to focus efforts on medical cannabis. He’s helping Winters try to get enough signatures before the deadline.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA BILL STALLS IN IDAHO LEGISLATURE

Jeremy Kitzhaber, a retired senior master sergeant of the U.S. Air Force with Stage 4 terminal cancer, crafted a medical marijuana bill with a Republican sponsor.

The bill has been stalled in committee, and supporters of the bill believe it won’t get a public hearing.

Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, and House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, sponsored the bill. It would have legalized medical marijuana with strict limitations on the amount and doctor. Sponsors said the bill would have been the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country.

Kingsley pushed the bill as an opiate alternative for patients who are struggling to manage their pain.

Kitzhaber was an example of that. He showed lawmakers last month the medication he needed every day — hydrocodone, oxycodone, pills to help with the bowel obstruction caused by the opioids, and a cancer inhibitor drug, to name a few. The opioids caused bowel obstructions for Kitzhaber, and those obstructions can become painful, even deadly.

But the Idaho Citizens Coalition wouldn’t support the bill because it was too restrictive, Kingsley said, while several conservative Republicans wouldn’t back the bill, either.

Kingsley said by phone Friday he was hoping the bill could pass this year for Kitzhaber.

“It’s just really hard to get through that bias that people have about the drug,” Kingsley said. “To me this is a no-brainer. … This is the right thing to do, and I’m going to keep fighting for it.”

But Kingsley said he’s not sure whether he would support a broader medical marijuana initiative. He said he wanted a more restrictive law that wouldn’t make it easily accessible for others who don’t get a doctor’s prescription.

REPUBLICAN LEGISLATORS STONEWALL EFFORTS FOR MEDICAL MARIJUANA INITIATIVE, BILL

Idaho’s Republican legislative leaders have put up a series of roadblocks to consider medical marijuana legalization.

Kitzhaber’s bill was rebuffed. Meanwhile, one bill would place more logistical challenges on anyone who wants to put an initiative on the ballot. And a constitutional amendment to prohibit the legalization of currently illicit drugs — including pot — has been backed by Senate Republican leaders.

An earlier version passed the Senate with a two-thirds majority. The constitutional amendment, if it passes the House, would also get placed on the 2022 general election ballot.

Jeffrey Lyons, assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, said having both a medical marijuana initiative and a constitutional amendment on illicit drugs could be confusing to voters.

Together, the two measures on opposing sides could draw attention to each other, Lyons said. The initiative could draw attention to the fact that the constitutional amendment would specifically ban weed.

“Advocates of the constitutional amendment probably would rather not have this medical marijuana (initiative) on the ballot at the same time,” Lyons said by phone Friday. “I don’t think it helps their cause.”

Republican legislators are also considering more restrictions on initiatives. If Senate Bill 1110 garners enough support in the House, placing an initiative on the 2022 ballot will become more difficult. Idaho senators already approved the bill in a 26-9 vote.

The Senate bill would require that a petition to place an initiative on the ballot include 6% of registered voters from each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. The state currently requires that signatures come from 6% of voters in at least 18 districts and 6% of voters statewide. The bill contains an emergency clause and would take effect immediately if it’s passed.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, denied that the bill had to do with efforts for a marijuana initiative specifically.

“To me it just has more to do with the increase in overall initiative activity than any specific initiative,” Vick said in an interview earlier this month about the bill.

Only two citizen-led initiatives have made it on an Idaho general election ballot in the past 10 years, both in 2018.

Idaho would be the second state to require every legislative district to sign onto a petition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For initiatives that propose constitutional amendments, Colorado requires signatures from at least 2% of registered voters in each of its 35 state senate districts.

Gov. Brad Little vetoed a similar bill in 2019, citing concerns over legal challenges that would leave “the liberal” Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide. In a letter to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in April 2019, Little wrote that “a lone federal judge” could define the initiative process.

Colorado’s initiative process faced a lawsuit that was appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the state in August 2019. The appeals court concluded that “no equal protection problem exists” since the requirement is based on geographic legislative districts drawn up by U.S. Census data.

But lawmakers generally consider the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be more liberal in its rulings. In an interview Friday, Little said state legislators know about his earlier concerns. When asked whether he’s been in discussions with senators about it, Little said he didn’t have input on the drafting of the bill but will keep an open mind.

“We are going to have a dialogue about it,” Little said by phone Friday. “We’ll look at the current makeup of the Ninth and what the ramifications of it are. That’ll all be a part of our calculations.”

‘WE ARE NOT GOING TO GIVE UP,’ MARIJUANA ACTIVIST SAYS

Marijuana activists fear state legislators could pass more restrictions on the initiative process, putting more logistical challenges for their signature collections.

Idaho’s Republican state laws could also remain at odds with federal policy if President Joe Biden decriminalizes marijuana, something he said he supports throughout his presidential campaign.

The latest Gallup national poll in November 2020 showed that Americans have been the most supportive that they’ve ever been on legalizing marijuana. But Republicans remain skeptical — 48% of Republicans support legalization, compared to 72% of independent voters and 83% of Democrats. A roughly 50-50 split can be seen among those who attend weekly religious services.

Lyons believes that with two-thirds of Idaho voters identifying as conservative, a legalization initiative is likely to pass if there’s good voter turnout, he said.

But he said the language of the initiative will be a determining factor in whether it can be successful in Idaho.

“Marijuana legalization, especially medical marijuana, is really pretty popular, and there’s just a pile of evidence of that,” Lyons said by phone Friday. “It’s not just a deep blue state phenomenon at this point.”

Carlson said she hopes legislators don’t make the initiative process more difficult. But she said the volunteers will do whatever necessary to get the initiative on the ballot, whether that means spending weekends in a county to gather signatures or canvassing on street corners. They won’t stop until they get the signatures, she said.

“We are not going to give up,” Carlson said. “We’re gonna do what we have to do to get this to pass. It’s just — it’s time. It’s time to bring Idaho into the present.”

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