An attempt by Idaho Republican leaders to make it impossible to legalize drugs in the state through a ballot initiative failed on Thursday, missing the supermajority support it needed in the House.
The proposed constitutional amendment would have required two-thirds of the House and Senate to approve the removal of a drug from Schedule I or Schedule II. Despite 26 co-sponsors who signed on to the amendment, House GOP leaders failed to garner the 47 votes needed to advance the measure to the Senate.
House members voted 42-28 in favor of the amendment, just short of the two-thirds required. The legislation divided Republicans, several of whom grew emotional as they spoke on the impact of drugs in their families. Many of them centered their debates around medical cannabis or hemp.
Several lawmakers who supported the measure on Thursday argued that putting the amendment on the 2022 ballot would give the public a voice on drug policy. Had the Legislature approved the measure, it would have been up for a vote in the 2022 general election.
If the amendment had passed in both chambers, voters potentially could have faced both the anti-drug measure and a medical marijuana initiative that groups are trying to get on the ballot.
Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said she wanted voters to have the option to support the constitutional amendment, since they might be voting on support of medical cannabis.
“I do not want to be the one that took that choice away from them,” said Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot. “Let’s give them the opportunity to have a voice. Let’s give them a choice on the ballot.”
Rep. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, criticized the measure for what he said was essentially the same question that a medical marijuana initiative would provide.
Placing the constitutional amendment on the ballot would have cost up to $200,000, according to the measure’s fiscal note.
The measure was a second attempt by House Republicans to lock in the state’s current drug laws after a previous version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, was scrapped.
Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, fought back tears on the House floor as he talked about how his family has been affected by drugs that are illegal in Idaho. Palmer’s son has been arrested on drug charges.
“We’re going to lose in the end, but let’s try right now to do our best to at least slow it down,” Palmer said. “I don’t want another family to go through this.”
Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls, said that if this measure were to be the only policy he’s able to pass, “I’d be happy.” He said it would make the Legislature involved in preventing substance abuse.
“We could change a lot of people’s lives if you think about it,” Erickson said.
Legalizing medical marijuana or other drugs
Rep. Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona, said marijuana isn’t the “big, nasty” villain legislators make it out to be. He criticized lawmakers for focusing too much on cannabis when he believes painkiller abuse is the problem they should tackle.
“This is a marijuana bill. Let’s call it what it is,” Christensen said. Despite mentions of other drugs, something like methamphetamine would never be legalized in Idaho, he said.
“Here we are worried about marijuana when the opioid crisis is a much bigger issue. Why aren’t we dealing with that?” he said.
Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, said medical marijuana helps patients in pain and is popular among Idaho residents.
Kingsley and Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, co-sponsored a bill to legalize medical cannabis with strict limitations, but it stalled in committee. The bill was crafted by Jeremy Kitzhaber, a retired senior master sergeant of the U.S. Air Force with Stage 4 terminal cancer.
Nobody has ever overdosed on cannabis, Kingsley said, which could provide an alternative to opioids.
“We’re causing Idahoans to be criminals, people who need the medicine,” Kingsley said. He spoke of a constituent who gets marijuana for her sick mother in Washington state.
“The people of Idaho overwhelmingly would like medical marijuana. It’s off the scales,” Kingsley said. “Let’s listen to the people. You want to turn this place blue? Go against the people.”
Idaho Republicans fear more ‘Oregon-style’ drug policies
Proponents of the bill railed against drug legalization in bordering states, specifically Oregon and Washington, and have said the amendment would protect Idaho from the slippery slope of legalizing drugs beyond pot.
Idaho is surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana in some capacity, with the exception of Wyoming.
Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana have legalized recreational and medical pot, while Utah allows 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.
Oregon voters in November also approved a measure that decriminalizes having small amounts of a range of street drugs and reduces penalties for larger amounts.
Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said she fears that “Oregon-style” drug policies could hit Idaho. “When we look over at Denver, or Seattle, or Portland, do we as Idahoans see Boise next?”
Despite legalizing the production of hemp for Idaho residents who obtain a license, the bill did not remove hemp off Idaho’s list of Schedule I drugs.
Rubel, the House minority leader, said routine bills that update Idaho drug laws based on federal changes often don’t get a two-thirds vote from the House. A bill this session would have removed Epidiolex — a drug that’s a CBD oil product — off the Schedule I list after the Food and Drug Administration approved it to be used to treat seizures. That bill passed with a 43-27 vote in the House — short of the two-thirds needed.
Other lawmakers said they worried the measure would go too far.
Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, who’s a pharmacist, said the measure could jeopardize patients’ “right to try” — which in Idaho allows terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs as treatments. Some critics expressed concern that a change in Idaho’s Constitution would trump the Right to Try Act in the state’s code.
“This is a big overreach,” Chew said. “If there is a substance you’re concerned about, let’s pass legislation about that substance.”
Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, who’s a cancer survivor, agreed with Chew. She said her mother got hooked on opioids and “ended up killing herself because of it.”
Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said the amendment was brought over fears of marijuana — but she said the fact that hemp is still listed as a Schedule I drug in Idaho should make the amendment “totally unacceptable” to be put on the ballot.
“There’s a lot of unintended consequences here,” Moon said.