BOISE • The pro-marijuana group New Approach Idaho submitted a citizen’s initiative petition Friday that aims to create a medical marijuana program in Idaho and decriminalize small amounts for adults. But observers say the process is likely to be an uphill slog.
The initiative, called “Idaho’s New Approach to Marijuana,” also aims to funnel 50 percent of the money collected through fines from marijuana and drug paraphernalia tickets to Idaho public schools and allow farmers to grow industrial hemp.
The petition will begin circulating in April and the group must gather signatures from 6 percent of the voting population in at least 18 of Idaho’s legislative districts by next April to get on the November 2016 ballot.
But it will be a Herculean effort. Although the perception is that Idahoans want limited government, many are very socially conservative, making heavy lifting out of signature gathering, observers said.
“Direct democracy is tough. It’s the hard way of getting a law passed,” said Perri Gardner, political science instructor at the College of Southern Idaho. “It’s what you do when you feel your elected representatives are not doing right by you.”
On the heels of a historic voter referendum, where Idahoans overturned the Students Come First education laws, the Idaho Farm Bureau sponsored a bill that tightened standards for an initiative to land on the ballot. Previously, 6 percent of registered voters in the state had to sign a petition to get an issue on the ballot.
Despite that 2013 change, the group has a chance if they hit areas that tend to vote Democratic, including Blaine County and increasingly blue Boise and Moscow, Gardner said.
Getting an initiative on the ballot in Idaho is harder than in some states, but easier than in others, said Gary Moncrief, professor of political science at Boise State University. Wyoming has a 15 percent requirement, he said. Idaho’s 2013 change requires a wider geographical distribution of the signatures, putting a greater burden on signature gatherers.
Idaho has significantly fewer initiatives make the ballot than most western states, Moncrief said. Oregon, California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado and South Dakota tend to have the most.
In November, New Approach member Serra Frank said education would be the key to getting enough signatures. The group plans to invite legislators to awareness rallies and town hall meetings across Idaho, she said.
“Our representatives still need to know what the people are wanting,” she said.
In the 2013 session, Idaho lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing legalization of marijuana “for any purpose in the state of Idaho.”
But Frank said the toll that marijuana laws have on people is worse than what might happen if it were legal.
“The gateway theory is out the window,” she said. “I don’t use heroin. I use marijuana. I choose it over pharmaceuticals.”
In the three states that recently legalized recreational marijuana — Washington, Colorado and Alaska — a medical program preceded all-out legalization. All three are collecting hefty consumption taxes on the now-legal drug. Pro-pot advocates have targeted more libertarian states, such as Maine, as the next battlegrounds.
Washington D.C. was scheduled to legalize recreational marijuana on Thursday. But congressional Republicans promised legal action if the city went forward. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said Wednesday the legalization effort would go forward, in defiance of Congress.
But, in Idaho, leaping straight to recreational use in Idaho is unlikely, Gardner said.
“That’ll be a really tough sell to the public,” she said.