Medical pot movement headed to North Idaho

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Proponents of an initiative to legalize medical marijuana will bring a statewide signature campaign to North Idaho soon.

“It’s been really eye-opening and surprising,” said John Russell Belville, who is spearheading the drive to legalize medical marijuana through his group, the Idaho Cannabis Coalition. “I went to [Nampa High School’s] 20th class reunion, and some people were afraid to be in pictures with me. I go to my 30th, and those same people were asking where they can get ahold of CBD and cannabinoids. It’s been interesting.”

Belville’s initiative tour will visit Coeur d’Alene Dec. 15 in an effort to collect enough signatures to put the Idaho Medical Marijuana Act on the November 2020 ballot. Organizers will need to collect just more than 55,000 signatures statewide — with at least 6 percent of the registered voter population in at least 18 of the 35 Idaho legislative districts — to put the measure on the ballot.

If it passes, the Idaho Medical Marijuana Act would essentially create a legal marijuana industry in Idaho, protecting patients from criminal prosecution or civil sanctions for buying or possessing up to four ounces of marijuana from qualified dispenseries, as well as protecting certain patients who possess up to six marijuana plants. The initiative spells out a mechanism for production and distribution, establishes cardholder procedures and codifies which illnesses would qualify patients for the right to possess the drug.

“For me, my long-term goal is to keep my father alive," Belville said. "His first diagnosis was around 1999. He’s had numerous surgeries since then and his quality of life was drastically worse before he was introduced to CBDs.”

Belville said the initiative would help patients like his father, who suffers from peripheral neuropathy. He added that the relief his father found in cannabis far outweighs the risks the elder Belville takes with each dose of opioids.

The Idaho Medical Marijuana Act states that people authorized to possess marijuana would include patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, inflammatory bowel disease, Huntington’s disease and Tourette syndrome, as well as patients of debilitating diseases and conditions that cause severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures and other crippling conditions. Terminally ill patients with less than one year to live would also qualify.

A June push to get medical marijuana on the 2019 ballot was the latest in a lengthy battle by Belville to get the initiative in front of voters. In June, attempts to collect signatures to reignite the campaign fell three signatures short of bypassing deadlines, per a review by the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.

Belville said this campaign will come down to a similar wire, but he’s confident he’ll make the May deadline to get the requisite signatures.

“It’s going to be close,” he said. “I’ve got 12,000 signatures already notorized, and we think we have about 6,000 in the mailbox right now. The problem with Idaho is this district requirement that requires us to get signatures from across the state. But we’re going to make a real push for it this January.”

Previous pushes by pro-pot activists have included a focus on industrial hemp protections. This newest drive drops the industrial element and focuses only on marijuana for medicinal use.

“It’s interesting to see how the medical community has responded to marijuana and cannabinoids,” Belville said. “My father’s doctor was a big supporter of this movement. He told me the only reason he wouldn’t give my father marijuana is because it’s against the law. Otherwise, he’s all for it.”

Not all are in favor of legalization. Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger said nothing has changed his mind.

“When I look at these other states where it’s been decriminalized, it’s a mess,” Wolfinger said. “Crime’s up. Health issues are up. It’s a mess.”

Wolfinger wrote a February opinion piece to the Coeur d’Alene Press, stating in concert with the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association his firm opposition to legalization, earning online and handwritten support from several North Idaho residents.

“Finally,” he wrote at the time, “marijuana in any form is not an Idaho value. We in law enforcement fight daily against the ills caused by drug abuse. We have the opportunity here to be preventative as we explore this potential crop. As for [a House Bill to legalize], let’s keep it in a drawer and not let it move forward.”

Wolfinger did say Tuesday, however, he could foresee a path toward legalizing medical marijuana he would consider agreeing with, but he admitted that path is not yet on Idaho’s radar.

“If it’s done through the FDA, I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “If it’s gone through the proper channels, and it’s properly purified, I’m OK with it. But they haven’t yet … If it’s just somebody smoking weed, that’s not medicine.”

If Belville’s coalition gets the 55,007 qualifying signatures, Belville said the initiative will almost certainly pass, as his polling currently puts Idahoans at 71 percent in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, in keeping with other polls that report between 70 and 74 percent statewide. His Dec. 15 campaign will include swings through Wallace and Sandpoint as he stops at JoJo’s Tattoo & Body Piercing to collect signatures. The Nampa activist cited Utah’s recent approval to legalize medicinal marijuana as antecdotal evidence Idaho’s time has come.

“I mean, if it’s legal in Utah,” he said, “it really should be legal everywhere.”

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