When I last covered an Idaho legislative session as a reporter, in 2001, one of the legislators I was following closely had a bill proposal that seemed, on the surface, to have everything going for it.
He was on the House Agriculture Committee, a member of the majority caucus (Republican, of course) and allied with the chair of the committee, and this was a bill aiming to deregulate an agricultural practice - to free up the marketplace. He had significant support for the idea around the state, and the proposal he had was making strides around the country. And it allowed only for limited, narrow usage.
This should sound like a prescription for easy passage in the Idaho Legislature. But the legislator was Tom Trail, who was considered suspiciously centrist by some in his caucus, and the deregulation - actually, legalization - was of the crop called hemp.
Trail delivered an entirely compelling argument for the bill at House Agriculture. He got no traction at all. There were no strong arguments against his bill, just a lot of shuffling of feet and a bunch of (semi-embarrassed?) “nay” votes.
He would go on to try again. No luck. The votes just weren’t there.
After Trail left the legislature, others would pick up the effort. Occasionally someone would find a way to score a few more votes, but never nearly enough to actually pass the bill.
This went on for most of the last 20 years.
Hemp, which is related to but different from the cannabis plants that produce marijuana, was swept up in the 1970 federal controlled substances act. In the new century, however, states began experimenting with allowing the crop under state laws. They had motivation: Hemp has been a cash crop in America since the time of the Revolution. You can make clothes, paper, rope, paint, animal feed and much more. Many other countries around the world make plenty of money from it.
When Republican Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell went to bat for hemp, one think-tank report noted that he “understood much about this issue. First, he knows hemp doesn’t get you high and that the drug war debate that swept up hemp was politically motivated, rather than policy-oriented. Second, Kentucky—the leader’s home state—is one of the best places to cultivate hemp in the world, and pre-prohibition the state had a robust hemp sector. Third, the grassroots interest in this issue was growing in Kentucky …”
After a 2014 change in federal law allowed for pilot programs in hemp manufacture, states nationwide swept into the field - in 2016 alone, states from Alabama to Colorado to Hawaii eased back or reversed completely their rules on hemp. In 2018 Congress essentially legalized commercial hemp production, drawing a distinction between that product and psychoactive cannabis. By last year, every state but Idaho and Mississippi - which relaxed its rules somewhat too - allowed for hemp as a crop.
Idaho now seems on the verge of hemp legalization. Last week, a hemp bill cleared the legislature and is headed for the desk of Governor Brad Little; his signature seems more likely than not.
So what has been Idaho’s problem with hemp all these many years?
In short: It’s a culture war thing. One year momentum seemed with with the crop, but then a retired prosecutor declared, “The culture of hemp is the culture of marijuana,” and, well, that was all it took. No legislator wanted to be identified with the “culture of marijuana,” and actual facts became irrelevant.
Legislation, rules that help people and communities thrive or fail, these days live or die in many legislatures, Idaho’s not least of them, depending on where they seem to sit in the culture wars. Actual benefits and harm seem seldom considered with any seriousness.
That doesn’t mean you can’t pass actual useful, as opposed to culture war, legislation.
But on the evidence of the hemp bill, you might figure on it taking you 20 years.