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How marijuana has struggled to find roots in one of America’s most conservative states

While cannabis has been legalized to some degree in many parts of the country, pot advocates looking for success in Idaho, a state dominated by red politics and a reputation for being slow to accept cultural change, have hit a wall.

(CN) “We won! We won!” a crowd roared in downtown Denver when a jumbo screen announced to them that Colorado had just become the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana. The smell of the substance wafted through city streets — partakers not caring that the law would take two months to kick in — and supporters went to bed feeling high on the knoweldge they had just help to effect a real change for the country.

That was ten years ago, when Colorado and Washington took the unprecedented step to approve recreational cannabis within their borders, a move not even progressive California had taken after being the first to allow medical marijuana in the 1990s. Legalization of recreational pot was considered a radical by many in 2012 — including then-President Barack Obama.

Yet many states followed suit. Today, 18 states have fully legalized recreational marijuana while 38 have approved it for medical needs, making cannabis legal to some extent in nearly 80% of the United States.

But in Idaho, a conservative stomping ground, efforts to legalize marijuana have repeatedly failed.

Since it was first outlawed in the Gem State during prohibition, there have been several attempts to get a voter initiative for marijuana reform on the ballot. Such initiatives failed in 2012 and 2014 for not having enough signatures, while others failed to get off the ground due to organizational mishaps and complications due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most recently, an attempt to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot for the 2022 general election failed to meet the requirements in time.

Joe Evans, a Libertarian candidate for Idaho’s First Congressional District and treasurer of the Kind Idaho Medical Marijuana Consortium that worked to get that initiative on the ballot, says organizational and funding problems were in largely to blame.

“We ran into two problems,” Evans said. “One, we didn’t have any funding to support our volunteer efforts. And two, certain establishment community volunteers still insisted on trying to do it the old way ... They wanted to hold on to the petitions until the absolute last possible minutes so that nobody knew what the actual status of the petition was.”

Evans says that in order for a marijuana legalization initiative to see the light of day in the state, Idaho organizers need to learn the lessons of initiatives’ past and adopt blueprints with successful track records. He and other advocates maintain that Idaho has the numbers to pass marijuana reform. But it’s still up to community work to turn those numbers into results.

Why has legalized marijuana found a home in much of the U.S., including in fellow rural, conservative states like Alaska and Montana, but not in Idaho?

According to Evans, it comes down to not just Idaho’s GOP-dominated politics, but its tendency to be very slow to embrace change.

“We don’t have an interest in trying something new until its established as successful,” he said. “One of the problems is that some states have done marijuana legalization badly.”

The rollout of legalized marijuna in some places has been bumpy. The fact the substance is legal in many states but not on the federal level has presented legal and logistical challenges for communities trying to accept it. Additionally, weed dispensaries around the country have been the subject of multiple armed robberies.

But many say that the dangers posed by weed dispensaries is a failing not of the marijuana community, but of the feds. Because the federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule I substance — right alongside heroin and LSD — dispensaries often can't use banks and are forced to work with nothing but cash. Yet the sales from legalized weed are still subject to tax.  

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Those in the industry say such restrictions are doing nothing but hurting those looking to work in a field their own state has approved.  

Austin Chadderdon, a manager at the Top Crop dispensary in Ontario, Oregon — a small border town between Idaho and Oregon and about a half-hour drive from Boise — says changing these laws is not just about what’s fair. It’s about what’s safe.

“It seems unfair that they tax us so heavily and treat us like a totally different business, but they also bar us from using banks, which hurts us in the long run,” he said.

“With the volume that we’re working with down here, sometimes we have to pay someone over $10,000 in cash to drive across the state, and that just puts them at risk," Chadderdon added. "With open banking we could just wire transfer everything, no cash involved. Therefore, a lot safer.”

It’s not clear if these changes would be do anything to convince weed-shy Idahoans of accepting legalized marijuana. But it’s clear there are many Idahoans already flocking to places where marijuana is legal.

“They’re weed refugees,” Chadderdon said with a laugh. “And it’s kind of funny, because we have Idahoans paying Oregon taxes. So if Idaho would just legalize it, they would be getting all this tax money that Oregon is seeing.”

Organizers in Idaho say they will continue to push for a ballot initiative. While the deadline has passed to get one on the ballot this year, Evans and the Kind Idaho Medical Marijuana Consortium have already voiced their intentions to begin reorganizing after the election in November and work towards an initiative for 2024.

If that day comes, what can Idaho do to prepare for that reality?

Expert’s advice: Learn from the states that have already been through it and the mistakes they’ve made.

“If they do end up legalizing it, I really hope there is some young people in place that take hold of it, because they know what they’re doing,” Chadderdon said. “The last thing we want is someone making laws that doesn’t smoke cannabis or hasn’t been around it. That’s kind of happened in Oregon, where there’s people making the laws that aren’t on the front lines or understanding what’s going on.”

“It’s about knowing the culture, about knowing the science behind it," he added. "There’s just a lot to know within the cannabis industry.” 

Idaho did take a small step on the legalization path recently. Idaho Governor Brad Little signed a law that allows for the production and transport of hemp in Idaho as long as it does not exceed 0.3% THC content. Idaho was the last state to make such a move, and did so after it was already legalized by the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 — signed by then-President Donald Trump.

A now-dead bill to legalize marijuana on the federal level also failed to garner any support from Idaho’s two representatives — though one said that if Idaho’s law was different, his vote would change.

"Because if the state of Idaho votes to legalize marijuana then I would vote differently," Republican Representative Mike Simpson told local radio station NewsTalk KBOI. “Idaho has not legalized marijuana so I follow the wishes of the people of the state of Idaho.”

Advocates in the state stress that this battle is not just about the legality of a crop — it's about Idahoans struggling every day with mental and physical challenges that could rely on legal weed to help them thrive again.

“I have friends with traumatic brain injuries from car accidents, I have fellow veterans with post-traumatic stress injuries from combat operations and military sexual trauma, that will all be able to use medical marijuana to help alleviate their post-traumatic symptoms,” Evans said, speaking on the possibility of Idaho passing marijuana reform. “It’s going to be so nice to have friends back who can be friends all the time, rather than just that occasional moment when they're able to get access out of state.”

But for now, the state's residents are left to wait and see if a long-promised ballot initiative will ever find its legs, how the state will navigate an increasingly pot-friendly country, and whether that particular strain of green can grow in a field of political red.

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