William L. Spence: Commentary: Industrial hemp gains long-sought legal status

William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·4 min read

Apr. 17—Industrial hemp was in the clear, and higher education was once again under the gun Friday in Boise, when the 2021 legislative session officially became the third longest session in Idaho history.

Some details on the action:

Little signs off on hemp bill

Gov. Brad Little signed House Bill 126 into law, legalizing the production, transportation and sale of industrial hemp in Idaho.

Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, co-sponsored the measure. She has worked on the issue for years, picking up where her predecessor, former House Agricultural Affairs Chairman Tom Trail, left off.

Troy said she got the governor to sign a ceremonial copy of the bill for Trail on Friday.

The governor's action makes Idaho the last state in the nation to legalize industrial hemp.

HB 126 tries to strike a balance between law enforcement officials, who worry hemp could serve as a screen for illegal marijuana grow operations, and farmers and manufacturers, who are intrigued by the opportunities available with the multi-purpose crop.

The bill legalizes the production, sale and processing of industrial hemp, so long as it's done in accordance with rules that will be promulgated by the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Other cannabis products, including CBD oil that contains even minute amounts of THC — the psychoactive component in marijuana that makes people high — remain illegal.

Lawsuits in the making

House Republicans approved House Bill 364, which critics say will serve as a "perfect vehicle" for lawsuits against Idaho's public colleges and universities.

The legislation reflects the majority party's ongoing concerns with activities and management practices at the state's higher education institutions, which they believe discriminate against people who hold conservative values and viewpoints.

"What's happening at the university level, these campuses have essentially established their own free speech codes, their own speech zones," said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, who sponsored the bill. "They feel it's their right to determine what can or can't be said. And part of these speech codes, if there's a disagreement or diversity of thought or expression that offends somebody, that language is often shut down."

HB 364 purports to protect free speech rights by prohibiting the institutions from designating "free speech zones, or other designated areas of the campus outside of which expressive activities are prohibited."

The bill requires that any noncommercial expressive activity be permitted, "as long as the person's conduct is not unlawful and doesn't materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution."

It also explicitly allows students or student associations to sue a university or its employees if they feel this section of code has been violated — and mandates a minimum $5,000 penalty if the allegation is upheld by the courts.

Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, noted that campus free speech rights are already well-established under both state and federal law.

"This bill really just makes it easier to file lawsuits against universities," he said. "It also provides mandatory minimum damages. That's a nice thing for lawyers like me."

By approving the bill, Ruchti said, "we're going to make life more difficult for professors and administrators, and we're going to tie up university resources in lawsuits that just aren't needed. ... We're going to have lots of lawsuits. This is a perfect vehicle (for disgruntled students) to use. I hope we don't do this. This isn't good government."

Ehardt said other states have similar laws on the books, without resulting in a surge of lawsuits.

"This legislation answers a problem we've had," she said. "Let's give direction to our institutions of higher education, so they can not longer write their own speech code. This allows our students to have their voice on campus."

The House approved the bill on a 56-12 near-party-line vote. Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, was the only Democrat to support the measure; Rep. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, was the only Republican to oppose it.

The legislation now moves to the Senate for further action.

Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.