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Marijuana: The latest battlefield between left and right in Idaho

October 7, 2018

As more states legalize marijuana, whether to change Idaho’s laws has been coming up more often in political debate and has become more prominent among the issues that divide the state’s politicians and voters by party and ideology.

While Democratic gubernatorial candidates A.J. Balukoff and Paulette Jordan agreed on most issues, Jordan staked out a position to Balukoff’s left on marijuana. She supports medical marijuana and has said she favors decriminalizing marijuana possession and would support full legalization if the people back it by popular vote. Jordan won the primary, and the Idaho Democratic Party amended its platform at its convention in June to call for legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana use.

Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has supported the state’s current laws, which are stricter than most and increasingly stand out from Idaho’s neighbors, three of which have legalized recreational use. He has opposed allowing widespread access to cannabidiol oil, a non-psychoactive oil that supporters say can help treat serious seizures, putting him at odds even with some in his own party. Otter has, however, allowed a limited state-regulated trial program for the CBD medication Epidiolex.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who is running to succeed Otter, would largely continue Otter’s policies on the issue. Little said in a statement this week he opposes allowing either recreational or medicinal marijuana. He supported the Epidiolex trial program and is open to allowing more widespread access to CBD oil, with conditions.

“I will support additional CBD oil use, as long as we know for sure that it helps children and adults, and it is regulated and quality-controlled and does not negatively affect our local law enforcement’s ability to keep our children safe,” Little said in a statement.

Poll: Idahoans generally support legalization of medical marijuana

The GOP is somewhat split on the issue — members of the party’s further-right wing tend to be more open to relaxing the current laws — but most Republican elected officials who have addressed the issue publicly have opposed legalization, and recent polling shows most of their base agrees with them on recreational marijuana at least.

A poll that was conducted in late June and early July found strong majorities of Idahoans support legalizing medical marijuana and oppose recreational marijuana. Out of the 606 Idahoans polled by Dan Jones and Associates, 79 percent favor some form of medical marijuana while they oppose recreational use by a 58-40 margin.

Support for medical marijuana cuts across political, religious and age groups — while 81 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds favor medical marijuana, so do 65 percent of respondents 70 and older. Recreational marijuana is more divisive — Republicans oppose it 73-26, while Democrats favor it 56-42 and independents are split 47-47. The only age group where a majority of respondents favor recreational marijuana was 18-to-29-year-olds, who support it by 60-37. The poll has a 4 percent margin of error.

Voters in Utah will decide this November whether to allow medical marijuana there. Gov. Gary Herbert has said he plans to call a special session in November to legalize medical marijuana whether the initiative passes or fails, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come out in support of this.

Professor: Social conservatives unlikely to change views

Jaclyn Kettler, a political science assistant professor at Boise State University, said the increased attention to the issue is likely a result of a mix of changing public opinion, debate about marijuana laws at the national level, and legalization in neighboring states.

“Idaho is increasingly surrounded by states with some form of medical marijuana (or) legal marijuana,” she said. “I think … that has increased the saliency here in Idaho.”

The popular votes that legalized recreational marijuana in Nevada, Oregon and Washington showed a similar partisan divide to Idaho — most of the Democratic-leaning counties in those states backed legalization, most of the Republican-leaning ones opposed it.

“You are seeing more Democratic candidates and officials come out in support of marijuana decriminalization, legalization, medical marijuana,” Kettler said. “Some of that may go along with changing opinions for Democratic voters. They might just be keeping up with their base.”

As for Republicans, Kettler sees a split between more libertarian ones, who “tend to be a bit more supportive,” and social conservatives, who oppose marijuana use. She said it’s an issue where Republican elected officials haven’t gotten much pressure from their base, although that could change if public opinion continues to shift in the direction of more support for marijuana.

“Especially social conservatives with that religious influence ... it’s unlikely they will shift much and become very supportive of much other than maybe CBD oil,” she said.

Issue not expected to influence election

While few expect Idaho to legalize marijuana anytime soon, it is likely that some marijuana-related bills will re-emerge in the next legislative session.

At the end of the day, wherever the candidates and the parties fall, Kettler doesn’t think it’ll change many votes.

“I think if we had a ballot measure involving marijuana then it might play a bigger role in this election, but since there’s not, I don’t imagine it’s going to be a big factor for most voters,” she said. “You do have a few single-issue voters on marijuana ... but I doubt it’s a very large proportion of either party.”

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