BOISE — An Idaho House committee on Monday voted to introduce a new, very restrictive bill to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho, with just one “no” vote.
That clears the way for a full hearing on the bipartisan proposal from Reps. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, and Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, that’s called the “Sgt. Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act.” Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, a U.S. Air Force veteran who has terminal cancer, provided personal testimony about his experience and the bill that he crafted with the idea of authorizing only strictly regulated medical use of cannabis in Idaho for certain types of very ill adult patients — and not opening the door for any recreational use.
The committee’s move was the exact opposite direction taken by the Idaho Senate last week when it approved SJR 101, a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at forever banning medical cannabis or legal use of any other psychoactive drugs in the state that aren’t already legal this year, FDA-approved and prescribed by a doctor. The proposed constitutional amendment, which would need voters’ approval in the November 2022 general election if it also wins two-thirds support in the House, is now pending in a House committee.
Medical marijuana is not FDA-approved, nor are any pharmaceutical companies likely to spend the millions it would take to win approval when it’s such an easily manufactured drug, created simply by growing a plant.
House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, who voted in favor of introducing the new bill, said, “It’s just about as tightly controlled as you could possibly control any controlled substance.” However, he said he’s told the sponsors he’ll only schedule a full hearing on it if they can find the votes to show it’s got support beyond the panel, including to get a hearing in the Senate.
Under the bill, which should be assigned a bill number on Tuesday, medically regulated cannabis would move from a Schedule I illegal drug in Idaho to a Schedule II drug, available only by prescription in strictly limited and packaged amounts, for patients 21 or older with certain specific diagnoses, including cancer, ALS, AIDS, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, debilitating seizures and terminal illness. Most patients could be prescribed only up to 2 grams of THC per month; those with cancer or terminal illness could be prescribed up to 10 grams per month. No growing or production of cannabis in Idaho would be permitted.
The state Board of Pharmacy would oversee registration of new medical cannabis pharmacies, and the Department of Health & Welfare would oversee the issuance of medical cannabis cards for qualified patients.
House Health & Welfare Committee members on Monday were clearly moved by Kitzhaber’s testimony, including his recounting of the intense pain his cancer causes him, along with that of Dr. Dan Zuckerman, medical director of the St. Luke’s Cancer Institute and a practicing medical oncologist. Zuckerman said three-quarters of oncologists nationwide support availability of medical marijuana for their patients, to ease their pain and the devastating side effects of their chemotherapy regimens. Idaho patients can’t get that now; Idaho law makes all use of cannabis strictly illegal. That means those patients are prescribed opioids, he said, which are addictive and have serious side effects of their own.
Rep. John Vander Woude said, “I came in here highly suspect, and it was a great presentation.” He said he still had questions about the fiscal note on the bill, which estimated a $33 million increase to the state general fund from 6% sales taxes on medical cannabis, and another $11 million from a 2% excise tax on it that would go to operate and enforce the new program.
Rubel said that was calculated by legislative budget analysts who researched the 22 states that currently authorize medical-only use of marijuana, factoring in Idaho’s sales tax rates. It may be high, she said, because it anticipates that the maximum number of medical pharmacies to distribute the drug, 28, would be opened, but the state Board of Pharmacy could go with a lower number.
Vander Woude ended up voting in favor of introducing the bill, as did every committee member except Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls.
Wood said it would be good to have the full financial analysis to hand out to the committee, “so that we can actually see, at least there’s going to be enough money there to fund the program without any general fund dollars going into it. … Because people are going to be concerned about that.”
Rubel said she hadn’t anticipated bringing legislation on this issue this year, until she met Kitzhaber. “This is something he’s been working on for years,” she told the committee. “I think it’s overdue.”
Kingsley told the panel, “This is exciting, it really is. It’s something that’s been needed for a long time. I’ve got friends in Lewiston that say, ‘Mike, I crossed the border and I feel like a criminal.’”
Kingsley has long been concerned about the opioid crisis in Idaho, and he said he believes this bill would help, by providing a less dangerous alternative drug for doctors to prescribe their seriously ill patients.
Rep. Greg Ferch, R-Boise, asked Kitzhaber why he wouldn’t just cross the state line into Oregon to get cannabis rather than go through all the hassle and cost of the measures outlined in the bill. Kitzhaber responded that “as a law abiding citizen,” that would risk jail for him, and was something he simply wouldn’t do.
Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, who made the motion to introduce the bill, said, “This is an issue that we have talked about often in the building in the last four or five years. I think the time has come to at least introduce this legislation. … I think if the Legislature doesn’t act on this issue in the near future, I think the citizens of Idaho will act on it for us.”
Rubel said if enacted, the bill would give Idaho the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the nation. “We’re not kidding ourselves that this isn’t an uphill battle,” she said, “but I think it’s a battle worth having.”