Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the following: Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock spoke with the Idaho Press. Previous versions of the story included an incorrect name.
BOISE — Citing a recent ruling in federal court ordering Idaho’s secretary of state to loosen signature-gathering requirements in one case for a ballot initiative effort, a group trying to put medical marijuana on the November ballot says the precedent should apply to them too.
The Idaho Citizens Coalition is working on a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Idaho. Idaho law requires organizers of such an initiative to gather signatures from 6% of the qualified electorate in the state by April 30 of the election year. In the Idaho Citizens Coalition’s case, that meant getting 55,057 signatures by that date, according to a letter the coalition’s attorneys sent to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office on Monday.
By April 30, Idaho had been hammered by the novel coronavirus for six weeks. Large-scale events where the coalition had hoped to gather signatures, such as Treefort and Boise Hempfest, were postponed or canceled in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, or because state and local public health orders outright forbid large gatherings. In the letter to the office — authored by Bradley Dixon of the law firm Givens Pursley — the coalition’s members argue they probably could’ve gotten the requisite number of signatures, had those events not been canceled.
In the in the winter and fall of 2019 and into 2020, according to the letter, the coalition secured 13,268 signatures in Boise, Caldwell and Nampa alone.
Bill Esbensen, a spokesman for the coalition, told the Idaho Press on Thursday that there were volunteers across Idaho working to gather the necessary signatures.
The coalition’s circumstances, Dixon argues in the letter, are very similar to those of Reclaim Idaho, the organization behind a “Invest in Idaho” initiative, which would generate $170 million per year for public schools by raising income taxes on the wealthy and corporations by 3%. Reclaim Idaho needed a set number of signatures to place the initiative on the ballot as well, but the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Idaho stunted their efforts. The group asked Gov. Brad Little and Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney for permission to use electronic signatures to continue gathering the necessary support. Both denied the group’s request, and the group sued them.
In June U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Little and Denney either had to allow the group another 48 days to collect electronic signatures, or it had to allow the initiative on the ballot. On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the state’s appeal, meaning the electronic signature-gathering effort can move forward.
Esbensen sees this as a windfall for the Idaho Citizens Coalition’s efforts to get medical marijuana on the ballot. The courts, he said, have already ruled on the question — twice.
“I think it would only be fair for us to follow the same directions as Reclaim Idaho did to make this happen,” Esbensen said.
He said he doesn’t want to sue the state to make it happen either. He’s hoping the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office will work with the coalition to avoid litigation, he said. The letter to the office was dated to Monday, Esbensen said he said he wasn’t sure if the coalition would receive a response.
“There can be no question that the Coalition had its work cut out for it to obtain the needed signatures, but it would appreciate the Secretary of State’s cooperation in giving it an opportunity to try, consistent with the Reclaim Idaho remedial,” Dixon, the attorney, wrote in the letter.
Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock said he hadn’t seen the letter, nor had others in the office he’d spoken with, thus the office couldn’t comment on it.