When Denis Palamarchuk, a trucker from Portland, Oregon, presented his bill of lading for 6,700 pounds of industrial hemp to officials at the Idaho port of entry on Jan. 24, he surely never dreamed of the nightmare that lay ahead. Hemp had been legalized federally under the 2018 Farm Bill, and was legal in nearly every other state. Just last week, tests were publicized regarding the “green, leafy” cargo in question, and it was proven to be hemp with THC levels under 0.3 percent. But that hasn’t helped Mr. Palamarchuk, because Idaho draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana. The Idaho State Police gleefully declared this the biggest “marijuana” bust in state history, and prosecutors brought charges carrying a mandatory five-year sentence – no possibility of parole. He joins two other truck drivers who are awaiting sentencing for driving industrial hemp through Idaho.
We are legislators representing different parties, but we agree on the basic principle that your tax dollars should never be used to perpetrate injustice. We are on the brink of such injustice should these drivers be imprisoned or saddled with criminal records hampering future employment (and disqualifying them from commercial drivers’ licenses). There are two major flaws in Idaho’s laws that have led to this outrageous situation. One is that Idaho draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana. The other is that Idaho allows judges no discretion whatsoever to set an appropriate sentence where “drug trafficking” is concerned, but instead imposes mandatory minimum sentences.
Last session, we co-sponsored two bills which, had they passed, would have improved Idaho’s laws dramatically. First, we tried to legalize the transport, sale and farming of hemp to bring Idaho in line with federal and nearly every other state law. Most importantly, the bill would have conformed to federal removal of hemp from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp is not a mind-altering drug – it is a versatile crop used for food, clothing, lotions, paper and more. The first American flag made by Betsy Ross was made from industrial hemp. Yet despite strong, bipartisan passage through the House, it ultimately died when the Senate, at the request of law enforcement, gutted the bill to the point that most sponsors abandoned it.
Second, we tried to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws, so that a judge would have the power NOT to sentence Mr. Palamarchuk to five years in prison. Had he committed arson, robbery, kidnapping, or virtually any other crime, the judge would have discretion in sentencing. But, because this is considered “drug trafficking”, the judge’s hands are completely tied. Our bill passed with a bipartisan supermajority through the House, but was denied even a hearing in the Senate by Chairman Todd Lakey.
Now, three hapless truck drivers face the cruel consequences of the Legislature’s inaction. At this point, the only way they can go on with their lives without prison time or a criminal record is if the Ada County Prosecutor decides to drop charges. She could do this tomorrow if she so chose; Idaho’s laws have taken the power and discretion from judges and given it to prosecutors. Over 2,000 Idahoans have already signed a petition on Change.org, asking for charges to be dropped. We have signed it, and we hope you will too. And we will keep working to improve our laws so this never happens again.