Letters from the West

To help Idaho, Otter wants Trump to crack down on states with liberal marijuana laws

Idaho Republicans stand united against most federal mandates from Washington, D.C., especially when Democrats are in control. But when Republicans take control of the federal strings of power, this authority seems less ominous.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter showed this shift in a Jan. 30 letter to President Donald Trump. He wrote that he looked forward to the closer collaboration with federal agencies than he experienced during the Obama years.

And he sought more flexibility from a host of programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Veterans Affairs. But he specifically urged Trump to use the full power of the federal government against neighboring states that have legalized marijuana.

“Among the most pressing concerns facing Idaho, both from the criminal and public health standpoints, is the utter lack of consistency displayed by the Obama administration in enforcement of federal marijuana laws,” Otter wrote. “In that respect, Idaho is a virtual island of compliance, and we are paying the price.”

The price Idahoans are paying, according to Otter, is that people are bringing marijuana into the state. The illegal marijuana affects Idaho youths, taxpayers, law enforcement officers, jails and health care systems, said Elisha Figueroa, administrator of the Idaho Office of Drug Policy.

“We do not allow states to violate environmental laws just because they voted to do so, primarily because it impacts those around them,” she said. “Why then are states being allowed to violate drug laws that have enormous negative consequences for neighboring states?”

In November, Nevada voters approved the use and sale of recreational marijuana. Montana liberalized its law allowing the use and distribution of marijuana for medical use. Add Oregon and Washington, two states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana, and Idaho is nearly surrounded.

How the Trump administration will approach enforcing federal laws against marijuana is not clear. Trump said in the campaign that he supported medical marijuana. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in his confirmation hearings, said that it is not his responsibility to pick and choose which federal laws to enforce. He previously has said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

So Otter and Figueroa hope that perhaps Sessions may listen to their plight and enforce federal law, even in states that have legalized use. But politically that might not be so easy.

More than 190 million Americans live in states where marijuana has been legalized — 29 states for medical marijuana and eight others and the District of Columbia for recreational pot, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The people in those states expect their governors and legislators to fight for their rights and freedoms to partake.

Even Idaho Freedom Foundation Executive Director Wayne Hoffman has urged Idaho lawmakers to revisit the state’s marijuana prohibition laws.

Already Congress has added to the continuing budget resolution in effect today the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment, which restricted U.S. Department of Justice funds from being used to interfere with state-based legal operations in those 29 states. A similar amendment that would have covered recreational marijuana states fell just 12 votes short in 2015.

Obama’s Justice Department in August 2013 issued the Cole Memo, which offered guidance to federal prosecutors and law enforcement on priorities for marijuana law enforcement. That guidance was aimed at preventing: distribution of marijuana to minors; moving it out of legal states; funding for criminal enterprises, gangs or cartels; growing on public lands; use on federal property; and drugged driving.

The administration’s inability to require the legal states to keep marijuana from leaving their states and the health problems from contaminated marijuana are among the frustrations for Figueroa, Otter’s drug prevention chief. Utah had been considering bills to legalize medical marijuana, she said, but that’s on hold while waiting to see what the Trump administration will do.

If Sessions were to begin cracking down on pot, or throw out the Cole memo and go after marijuana distributors in states such as Oregon or Washington, it might force Congress to move more quickly toward some kind of resolution.

That might end the threat of federal enforcement for pot users in legal states. But that won’t stop the drug from coming into Idaho, any more than it did when pot was illegal in our neighboring states.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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