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Ten years ago, when Bill Esbensen first began working with activists to push for some form of legal marijuana in Idaho, someone threatened to beat him up for it.

He was at a Willie Nelson concert in Boise, trying to collect signatures to get an initiative to legalize marijuana on the ballot. As he remembered it, the man who wanted to attack him for collecting signatures was probably older than 80.

“That was the attitude of people back then,” he said.

Esbensen has worked on multiple attempts to legalize medical marijuana in the decade since. Public opinion on the topic in Idaho has shifted during that time, he said on Aug. 4, citing a poll from the firm FM3 Research that shows 72% of Idahoans are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. The poll took place in April 2019 and included 400 Idahoans.

“Now you’re standing in line at Albertsons and the 75-year-old grandmother in front of you is talking about it,” he said.

Once again this year, Esbensen worked with the Idaho Citizens Coalition to gain enough signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot to legalize medical marijuana. This time they worked with John Belville, 78, of Nampa, a retired drug and alcohol counselor who uses marijuana for pain in his legs and feet due to an underlying health condition. He and his son, Russ Belville, traveled to every county in Idaho to gather signatures. Still, the coronavirus outbreak waylaid their efforts, as key signature-gathering events — such as Treefort Music Fest and Boise HempFest — were canceled.

Coalition members believe the initiative would have passed if they could have gotten it on the ballot. They say the Idaho Legislature, whose inability to fully legalize hemp set it at odds with every other state in the country and cast it as an anti-cannabis body, is out of touch with the constituency on the topic of medical marijuana.

“Marijuana is a weird issue where the people and the leadership are on completely different pages,” Russ Belville said.

Some Idaho lawmakers agree.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she “absolutely” agrees the Legislature is on a different page from Idaho voters when it comes to medical marijuana. It’s a common topic in her conversations with constituents, she said.

Ideally, she said, the state’s residents shouldn’t have to achieve medical marijuana through a ballot initiative at all — it should be something lawmakers should do for the people if there is strong support for it, she said.

“This seems like something that the Legislature should just be able to take care of,” she said. “But they haven’t been and I don’t know that they are any time soon.”

Last session Rubel wanted to introduce a bill to legalize medical marijuana, she said, but chose not to after Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee indicated he wouldn’t give it a hearing.

Wood did not return calls from the Idaho Press seeking comment.

Feelings about medical marijuana don’t break strictly along party lines. Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said he’d consider supporting a medical marijuana bill now, but he probably wouldn’t have in 2014 when he took office; his shift is based on the support for medical marijuana he sees among his constituents. 

“At least in my district, there has been support for, at least, medical marijuana, if not full recreational use,” McCrostie, who represents District 16, said last week.

House Speaker Scott Bedkey, R-Oakley, said he felt “medical marijuana would be a great thing when it’s prescribed to you by a doctor.”

He pointed out opioids are legal, but they’ve been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He said he would want to see similar action taken for marijuana products before he could allow them in Idaho.

Some of the top leadership in Idaho’s Republican Party oppose legalizing marijuana. Gov. Brad Little, for instance, has said he opposes it — he even cautioned the legalization of hemp as possible camouflage for marijuana trafficking.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, led the 2013 charge for the successful passage of a resolution by the Legislature declaring the state should never legalize marijuana for any use.

“You talk to anybody that’s become a drug addict, you ask them what they got started (on), they’ll usually tell you it was on marijuana,” Winder said last week. “To me it’s detrimental to the individual, it’s detrimental to families, and the community in general.”

He said he didn’t think the Legislature was out of touch with its constituents on the topic.

“The polls are written in such a way that they give a mis-indication of what the real understanding of it is, and when you talk to people just out on the street or in a business situation or church or wherever you might be, people don’t want to see marijuana come to Idaho,” he said. “They see what’s happened in other places.”

SENIORS AND RURAL RESIDENTS

What surprised Rubel most in conversations with constituents at senior living centers in December was how often medical marijuana came up.

“It’s not something I hear from wild kids looking to party,” she said. “It’s something I hear from senior citizens who have chronic pain.”

That’s the reason John Belville started using marijuana. On a trip to visit his son, Russ Belville, in Portland three years ago, the elder Belville tried some of his son’s marijuana. It eased his chronic pain, he said. It wasn’t enough to get high, but it did relieve the pain, he said. Using the drug now, he’s been able to lower the amount of morphine he takes for the pain from 60 milligrams per dose to 15 milligrams.

He called Idaho’s stance on medical marijuana “backwards” and said it reminded him of views of marijuana from his days as a drug and alcohol counselor.

“In my day marijuana was a gateway drug,” he said. “You smoke marijuana and you’re going to do heroin.”

Support for medical marijuana isn’t confined to the Treasure Valley, say the members of the Idaho Citizens’ Coalition. In his signature-gathering voyage across the state, John Belville said he found people who support medical marijuana in rural Idaho as well. Other times, though, the Belvilles felt watched by police, who sometimes parked near where the organizers were gathering signature-gatherers.

“There’s a lot of people out there who still think it’s Reefer Madness,” John Belville said, but later added, “Even in places like Driggs, Idaho, there’s people who realize there’s a benefit to it.”

Sometimes he was surprised — in Wallace in North Idaho, for instance, people lined up to sign the petition, despite snowy weather.

“We’ve had a great deal of support no matter where we were,” Russ Belville said.

The Idaho Citizens Coalition gathered a gross total of roughly 40,000 signatures before calling off signature-gathering events when the governor issued a stay-home order on March 25. They needed over 55,000 signatures by April 30 to get the initiative on the November ballot. 

The coalition has cut its losses this year, and is regrouping to make an effort to get an initiative on the ballot in November 2022. John Belville said he won’t be the chief petitioner — he’s getting too old and his health isn’t good enough for treks across the state — but he still believes the bid will be successful.

“2022 will be the year,” he said.

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