Guest Opinions

Idaho needs to take a closer look at medical cannabis policy

Phil Haunschild
Phil Haunschild

One thing was made very clear in Idaho from the midterm elections: It is only a matter of time before medical marijuana is coming to Idaho.

Voters in neighboring Utah passed a voter-initiated proposition to legalize medicinal cannabis for chronically ill patients. Voters in Ontario, less than an hour from Boise, chose to legalize the sale of recreational cannabis. At this point, more than 80 percent of Idahoans live within an hour and a half from a state that has legalized some form of cannabis. Even Idaho’s international neighbor, Canada, legalized general recreational use in October.

It is important that policymakers begin the discussion over the right medicinal cannabis policy for Idaho before this wave of legalization crashes over the border. And this discussion can’t come too soon — law enforcement resources are strained across the state and Idahoans are in need of healthier alternatives to manufactured pharmaceuticals.

This year, the state Department of Corrections requested $500 million to add prison space for more than 2,400 inmates and to add a dozen additional permanent patrol officers to the Idaho State Police. But many of these public safety resources aren’t even spent making us safer. Instead, they’re spent going after low-level cannabis users. From 2008-2013 (the most recent years for which the Idaho State Police has produced a report), more than nine out of 10 arrests for cannabis were for simple possession or consumption. And public safety resources are stretched thin chasing users — not the dealers. Allowing a legal avenue for those who have a legitimate medicinal need would take some pressure off the shoulders of our law enforcement.

Idaho’s chief executives continue to hold that Idahoans have sufficient access to cannabis-derived products with Epidiolex medication. But, at nearly $100 per day for a medication that could be purchased for just $160 per month in other states, this isn’t an affordable solution for Idahoans. Cannabis offers distinct health benefits for those suffering from epileptic or Dravet syndrome seizures as an alternative to the opioids fueling a nationwide crisis. It’s also known to alleviate chronic pain. But residents seeking this kind of respite from their medical challenges place themselves at risk of fines or imprisonment.

It’s no wonder that polling conducted this summer found that 79 percent of Idahoans favor medicinal cannabis’ legalization. Likely, support is even higher today — since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has officially expressed its support for medicinal cannabis.

“The church does not object to the medicinal use of marijuana, if [it’s] doctor-prescribed, in dosage form, from a licensed pharmacy,” Elder Jack N. Gerard said on behalf of the church in August. Roughly one-quarter of Idahoans are members of the church, so this was a seismic shift in the political landscape.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Support for legalizing medicinal cannabis depends largely upon the specifics of any proposal. What kind of prescription or doctor’s recommendation would be required? What quantity would residents be allowed to carry? What patients would be eligible? How will we distinguish between cannabis that is legally grown and that which is illegal?

We need to find answers to each of those questions, but doing so will require patients and medical professionals, legislators and law enforcement officers, all coming together to find the right policy for Idaho.

With a freshly elected governor, 25 new legislators and a populace that supports reform, Idaho can finally turn a new page and demand smarter cannabis policies that actually work for the suffering in our state.

Phil Haunschild is a contributor for Young Voices and a Boise resident.