Senator: Marijuana is ‘the elephant in the room’ as lawmakers work to restrict initiatives process

April 12, 2019 GMT

BOISE — When Idaho senators debated a bill that would make it harder to qualify a voter initiative or referendum for the ballot, one senator pointed to “the elephant in the room”: marijuana.

“I’m not as fearful of things that may be coming in the future as others are — certainly a big concern has been marijuana,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom. “Certainly the speculation has been that’s part of the reason.”

Although Idaho is surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana in some form, the Legislature in 2013 passed a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, declaring the state should never legalize marijuana for any use.

“I think it’s just one of those things that we’ve watched what’s happened in Oregon and Washington and Colorado and California and places where they’ve legalized marijuana and just see the impact it has on their communities and homelessness,” Winder said. “It doesn’t reduce drug use — it increases drug use, and any place that they’ve had it, it goes from marijuana ... to heroin problems and meth problems and all sorts of different things. That’s our fear — we’re just trying to do what we think the people of Idaho want — and that’s to keep it still a great place to raise your kids.”

Winder, who supported the ballot initiative bill, said he doesn’t believe marijuana played a part in SB 1159, but it’s clearly among the factors on lawmakers’ minds as they considered clamping down on ballot measures.

Other factors lawmakers and observers cited as helping spur the debate included the state’s increasing urbanization and other demographic changes; this year’s successful Medicaid expansion initiative; a proposed ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, which many lawmakers oppose; and fear about Idaho becoming like California or Oregon with initiatives crowding the ballot each election.

Winder’s view on the initiative bill was that it would protect Idaho’s Constitution and help the state avoid the potential problems that other states have run into.

“A lot of people accused us of doing unconstitutional law or not protecting the Constitution. I think most of us felt like, that voted for the initiative process, was that we were protecting the Constitution,” Winder said. “We don’t want 10 or 15 initiatives on our ballot every time.”

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, a proponent for hemp and CBD oil, said he believes the initiative bill was created to give rural Idahoans more voice.

“I don’t think it’s a vindictive thing. … Different people have different motivations,” Rice said. “I think it’s just a recognition that rural Idaho is increasingly getting squeezed out of these conversations.”


Disagreement over marijuana legalization is nothing new to Idaho. For years, marijuana in all of its forms — medicinal and recreational — has sparked debate among Idaho lawmakers and citizens.

In 2012, Boise-based group Compassionate Idaho fell short of the 47,500 signature needed for a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho.

Last November, Ontario, Oregon, which is about an hour’s drive from Boise, lifted its ban on recreational marijuana.

In the latest effort to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho, just last month, The Idaho Cannabis Coalition, a new nonprofit, filed a medical marijuana and industrial hemp petition with the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. The petition must first be reviewed by the Secretary of State, then the group can start collecting signatures to try to qualify it for Idaho’s 2020 ballot.

This session, legislation is pending that would allow for interstate transport of hemp. Hemp will remain illegal.

Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University, said that because Idaho’s neighbors have some form of legal marijuana, the state has run into some challenges, because “things can cross over the borders.” She added that due to generational differences and changing stereotypes, people’s negative views toward marijuana are changing.

“The shift has been so quick to where Idaho is one of few states that allows nothing,” Kettler said.

The controversial initiatives bill, SB 1159 and its “trailer bill” HB 296, came following Medicaid expansion’s passage, which won support from 60.6 percent of Idaho voters in November.

“On the heels of Prop 2, I think there was some motivation to make those standards a little tougher, because I think there was some dismay over the fact that Prop 2 found its way on the ballot,” Guthrie said. “There’s several issues out there — minimum wage, medical marijuana — those kinds of things that there is some fear that they’d be on the ballot and ultimately passed by the citizens.”

Hundreds of people spoke against SB 1159 in committee last month, many arguing it was in direct response to Proposition 2, and that it was unconstitutional.

“Just because something’s on the ballot doesn’t guarantee passage,” Guthrie said. “I’m not as afraid of those kinds of things — of the ghosts of the future so to speak, because we still have the ultimate power.”

{p dir=”ltr”}Both initiative bills were vetoed by Gov. Brad Little, who wrote in his veto letter that he questioned the “constitutional sufficiency of the bills and the unintended consequences of their passage.” However, this week new bills were introduced that revived pieces of those bills.

When asked about what prompted SB 1159, the bill’s sponsor, C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, declined to comment.

“I said all I had to say in the Senate and State Affairs,” Grow said. “The governor did his thing, and I appreciate that decision.”