Opinion Columns & Blogs

It’s time to drop paranoid reefer madness and address the hemp issue in Idaho

Ada County prosecutors and Ada County Magistrate Judge Michael Oths exercised some much-needed common sense Thursday in the case of three truck drivers who were charged with transporting hemp through Idaho.

Now it’s the Legislature’s turn to exercise some good judgment.

It all started in April 2018, when Erich Eisenhart, of Oregon, and Andrew D’Addario, of Colorado, were arrested when they were caught transporting hemp through Idaho. The pair pleaded guilty on felony charges of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver in April this year and were facing up to five years in prison.

Idaho law doesn’t make a distinction between marijuana and hemp; anything that tests positive for the psychoactive drug THC is illegal. Hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC. In the state’s eyes, any green, leafy substance containing THC, however small, makes a plant marijuana and therefore illegal.

In January, the issue really heated up with the arrest of another trucker, Denis Palamarchuk, of Portland, who was charged with felony drug trafficking. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in 4th District Court in April.

His case was arguably more significant because he was hauling 6,701 pounds of the green leafy substance that contained THC. Tests showed that the substance was indeed hemp, not marijuana.

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For Eisenhart and D’Addario, their charges were reduced to misdemeanors after they were allowed to withdraw their felony guilty pleas and enter new plea agreements.

Palamarchuk struck a plea deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of an improperly permitted load. He was given a $500 fine and ordered to pay court costs and the $1,860 cost to test the hemp, given one year of unsupervised probation and received a withheld judgment. A heck of a lot better outcome than getting cuffed and taken to prison for five years under a mandatory minimum charge.

“He really was an innocent third party in this whole deal,” Palamarchuk’s lawyer, James Ball, told me, describing Palamarchuk as “just a simple guy, never been in trouble, a hard worker, just trying to make 500 bucks by driving a truck.”

In the fight over whether hemp is legal or illegal, “(Palamarchuk) was like just a ping pong ball in the whole back-and-forth.... My aim here was just to get him out of the middle of that fight.”

The 2018 federal farm bill, passed by Congress, decriminalized industrial hemp nationwide.

The farm bill did require all states to create hemp regulatory systems, and that was part of the argument that prosecutors here were making, that Idaho has no such regulatory system, and in fact no state at the time had a regulatory system with the feds to regulate hemp.

Further, prosecutors noted, in the first case, involving Eisenhart and D’Addario, the transport occurred before the passage of the federal farm bill.

Recognizing a real problem brewing, the Idaho Legislature in the 2019 session considered bills that would have legalized hemp, but none passed, partially because of political infighting. One of those bills would have legalized transporting hemp through the state. So even transporting hemp through Idaho remains illegal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture weighed in with an opinion that no state or Native American tribe can prohibit the interstate shipment of hemp that is lawfully produced under the federal farm bill.

Two state legislators even intervened in the cases of the truck drivers, delivering a petition in May with more than 13,000 signatures to the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office. They urged prosecutors to drop the felony charges against the truck drivers, and prosecutors seemed to be sympathetic.

“Those who signed the petition that has recently circulated and citizens interested in the outcome of those recently publicized cases can be assured that we are listening and have heard your concerns,” according to a press release sent by the prosecutor’s office and the Idaho State Police.

“We understand the desire to provide a legal pathway for an alternative crop for Idaho’s farmers and for those who transport it across state lines,” prosecutors said in the release. “We are currently conducting research and working to develop a solution. We continue to be committed, as we have been, to establishing a legal framework to provide a solution to this issue going forward. Those of us who enforce Idaho’s laws are bound by the laws which currently exist, not those which may exist at some future date.”

OK, so there you have it, legislators. Time to drop the paranoid reefer madness marijuana fear mongering and address the hemp issue in Idaho. At the very least, make it legal to transport it through Idaho. Even better, make it legal so that Idaho farmers can grow it.

Hopefully, legislators can get it done before we get another legal mess on our hands.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.
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