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Testing under the influence


And the tests of Idaho’s elected officials go on. The next one might involve medical marijuana.

A measure proposed for Idaho ballot status in 2020, already in the early stages of its process, would set up a regulated but legal regime for medical marijuana and industrial hemp in the state. Many of the people who sought to restrict (or nearly eliminate) initiative ballot access seemingly – to judge from what a number of people around the Idaho Legislature said during the session – made that effort partly out of concern that voter approval of medical marijuana might be the next thing voters could adopt after getting no traction at the legislature.

After a session in which legislators were beaten up week after week for loudly telling voters what they couldn’t do and the choices they couldn’t make … they might be stuck with more of the same after the 2020 election. Maybe.

For now at least, the cannabis ballot issue is going forward. Answers to at least one and maybe both of the key immediate questions may be apparent by the time the legislature next meets:

Can the marijuana advocates climb the massive hurdles that the Medicaid expansion forces did, and manage to get their proposal on the ballot?

And, if they do, would the voters of Idaho pass it?

The answers to each question are highly uncertain in the spring of this year. But for now, positive answers to both questions do seem plausible.

Although the ballot restrictions the legislature proposed this year failed (remember, they may be back in the 2020 session), the difficulties already on the books for getting a citizen initiative on the ballot are large. A big, well-organized and reasonably well-funded grass roots effort would be needed to accomplish it. The Medicaid expansion forces had that, and by pushing exceptionally hard managed to reach their goal.

Whether the Idaho Cannabis Coalition and its allies will be able to put together as strong an effort is far from clear; a marijuana ballot issue failed to reach the ballot in 2018. But the Medicaid forces did set out a template: They showed issue advocates exactly what was needed and how such a campaign could succeed. With enough resources and energy, the ICC and others might be able to follow in its tracks.

If they do, could the measure pass? Idaho voters cannot be mistaken for those in Washington or Oregon or California, or most other legalization states, no doubt. But voters in places like Utah and other deep red states have approved medical marijuana. And there is this: The tough bar for getting on the ballot could help the advocates win an election, because of the immense amount of organizing and persuasion they would need to do to get in front of the voters at all. By the time voters saw the measure on the ballot, a lot more of them might be persuaded than would be the case if ballot access were a slam dunk.

Of course, we don’t yet know how capable the cannabis organizers will turn out to be (we can’t assess that until we see them in action), and we don’t know how persuadable Idaho voters may be.

But if it does pass, two more questions will quickly emerge.

One is whether the Idaho Legislature once again wants to put itself through a repudiation of the voters of the sort it did this year. (A good bet would be yes.)

The second test would go to Governor Brad Little, who last year said he would respect the will of the voters when they acted on Medicaid expansion. Last week, at his first Capital for a Day event, Little declared clearly his opposition to marijuana legalization. So, if the voters were to pass the planned initiative in 2020, what would Little do? Would he respect the will of the voters even when he happens to disagree with it?

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