Keep Idaho Signs

A Keep Idaho campaign sign against legalization of marijuana is displayed near the intersection of 2nd Street South and Northside Boulevard in South Idaho.

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In many ways, Idaho’s reluctance to experiment and try bold solutions to problems can be frustrating and no doubt holds us back as a state in some areas. In other ways, though, Idaho’s aversion to being an early adopter can be a good thing, as it allows the state to watch what other states are doing, learn from their experiences and avoid their mistakes.

Idaho is now surrounded by states and even a country that has some form of marijuana legalization, whether it’s medical or recreational.

Nearly all of Idaho’s surrounding states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada and Montana — have legalized marijuana in some form. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 states across the United States, and medical marijuana is legal in 33.

This editorial board has urged the state to take a close look at approving medical marijuana, based on studies, sound science, facts and the experiences of others who have gone before us. Recreational marijuana is an even bigger leap that would require careful consideration.

What Idaho needs is a careful study of what works, what doesn’t work, what are the benefits and what are the costs associated with any legalization of marijuana, whether it be medical or recreational.

What Idaho doesn’t need is to spend taxpayer dollars on a simplistic advertising campaign on one side or the other that cherry-picks statistics and doesn’t contribute to a greater understanding of the issue.

Unfortunately, the Keep Idaho ad campaign run by Boise-based nonprofit DrugFree Idaho, Inc., which has put up a series of billboards citing statistics about states that have legalized marijuana, appears to be such a campaign.

We appreciate DrugFree Idaho’s position and their mission to keep drugs out of Idaho. That’s their job; that’s their role.

What we question is the spending of taxpayer dollars to contribute to what merely appears to be a propaganda campaign and not a serious study of the issue. The Idaho Office of Drug Policy — a government agency — awarded DrugFree Idaho a grant to help fund the campaign. We’d rather see the state of Idaho spend our money on a true study of the costs and benefits of marijuana legalization — not an advertising campaign that clearly has staked out a position already.

If, at the end of that study, it reveals that the costs are just too great and don’t make up for the benefits, then so be it. Because let’s be honest on both sides, there are definitely benefits to legalizing marijuana and there are also costs. Let’s keep an open mind to both.

Some of the statistics cited by the Keep Idaho campaign require further exploration and may not be as cut and dried at first blush.

One statistic, which is often cited from the Colorado Department of Transportation, states “Marijuana-related traffic deaths when a driver was positive for marijuana more than doubled from 55 deaths in 2013 to 123 deaths in 2016.”

What’s not part of those numbers is whether the driver had used marijuana just prior to a traffic crash or possibly weeks prior, as marijuana stays within a person’s system for weeks after use. It stands to reason that more people in Colorado have marijuana in their system since legalization, but the statistic alone infers that there’s cause and effect — that marijuana use caused those traffic fatalities. But of those 123 deaths in 2016, how many were caused by a driver who wasn’t using marijuana and just blew through a red light? Or how many of those deaths were caused by a drunk driver hitting another vehicle driven by someone who had smoked marijuana two weeks prior?

If, in fact, that the statistics bear out the inference — that, say, all 123 deaths were caused by marijuana use just prior to the crash and that the driver who had smoked marijuana was the cause of the crash — then that would be good to know. That would be important information to have when making a decision about marijuana legalization.

The problem is that we still don’t have that information — with or without a billboard.

Another statistic on one billboard: “Child poison center calls increased 5x after marijuana legalization.” That statistic came from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study shows there were nine calls for marijuana poisoning for children under 10 in 2009 and 47 such calls in 2015. Indeed, a five-fold increase, but still relatively small numbers for a state that has a population of 5.6 million, also considering that Colorado added nearly a half-million people from 2009 to 2015.

This is not to advocate one way or the other for any form of marijuana legalization. We just want to make sure that if we spend taxpayer dollars, we’re spending them wisely on legitimate studies that will truly inform the debate, not simply meant to persuade for or against.

Our editorials are based on the majority opinions of our editorial board. Not all opinions are unanimous. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison and community members Buzz Beauchamp, Nicole Bradshaw, Rex Hanson, John Jolley and Kathleen Tuck. Editor Scott McIntosh is a nonvoting member.

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