Drugs Politics Russ

National Drug Policy Funders to Idaho: You’re On Your Own

For half a million dollars, Idaho could have been the next medical marijuana state. Making the ballot has always been the only question, as polls have consistently shown about three-in-four Idahoans are for it.

Congratulations to the folks working to legalize the medical use of hallucinogenic mushrooms! Rolling Stone reports that Dr. Bronner’s Soap company is donating $1,000,000 to their campaign. That’s on top of $150,000 they donated earlier in 2019.

That donation adds to the $535,000 already donated to the IP-34 campaign by the New Approach PAC, the national drug policy funding organization of the estate of the late Peter Lewis, who formerly bankrolled initiatives by the national Marijuana Policy Project.

There is also a campaign in Oregon to decriminalize the possession of all controlled substances – from codeine to carfentanil, from Xanax to heroin, from LSD to PCP. That campaign has received $730,000 from Drug Policy Action, the national drug policy funding organization of the Drug Policy Alliance.

In addition to almost $1.7 million to legalize medical shrooms and over $700,000 to decriminalize all drugs in Oregon, a measure to legalize medical marijuana is already on South Dakota’s ballot. That measure tallied over $900,000 in donations from New Approach PAC.

But that’s not all in South Dakota. They are also voting on a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana. That measure has raised almost $900,000 from New Approach PAC.

Then there is Mississippi, voting on a medical marijuana initiative this fall. New Approach PAC has donated $25,000 there, with another $46,000 donated by the Marijuana Leadership Campaign (the national lobbying firm of former MPP head Rob Kampia) out of Washington DC.

Idaho Stands Alone

By my rough tally, that’s over $4 million dollars that national drug policy funders have dedicated to legalizing mushrooms and decriminalizing all drugs in Oregon, legalizing and medicalizing marijuana in South Dakota, and passing medical marijuana in Mississippi.

US Map by Marijuana Acceptance
If South Dakota is successful in passing one of its 2020 marijuana initiatives, Idaho will stand alone as the only jurisdiction in North America where possession of any amount of THC – even the less than 0.3% found in industrial hemp, even for medical use – will get you arrested.

Meanwhile, in the state of Idaho, activists there are surrounded by legal marijuana (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Canada) and medical marijuana (Montana, Utah, and CBD oil in Wyoming) states. They’ve been trying every two years since 2010 to place medical marijuana on the ballot, yet never do national funders want to get involved.

Except this time. Idaho activists were ready to launch their latest initiative in the Spring of 2019. Then they were contacted by a national marijuana policy organization and asked to hold up, for there would be significant national donor interest in passing an initiative in Idaho for 2020, but those funders would need to have input on the initiative text.

So the spring and summer of 2019 passed before the national organization had its lawyers pore over the language and make their changes. With agreement on the text, the activists from the Idaho Cannabis Coalition filed their initiative, began the signature gathering, and awaited further direction and, most importantly, funding, from the national leaders.

Funding and direction that, sadly, never materialized.

Why Not Idaho?

There are obstacles to passing marijuana reform in Idaho. It is one of the most conservative states in the nation. There is a heavy influence, perhaps per capita even more than in Utah, of the Mormon Church (for instance, one of the members of the LDS Church’s governing congress was appointed by the governor to the Idaho State Senate to fill a vacant seat in 2018).

But it is one of the last states, along with South Dakota and Mississippi, that have the power of citizen initiatives without having yet passed a medical marijuana law. Why lavish them with funding and not Idaho?

South Dakota has already tried to pass medical marijuana twice, losing in 2006 (47.7% yes) and 2010 (36.7% yes). So, national funders decided after support declined, they’d not only throw $1 million at medical in South Dakota, but another $1 million at recreational legalization?

Perhaps that makes sense, considering neighboring and demographically similar North Dakota passed medical marijuana last election cycle. But wouldn’t that apply to Idaho, too, with its political and religious twin, Utah, passing medical marijuana in the last election cycle?

Idaho does have a tough path to getting on the ballot. You have to collect enough registered voters’ signatures to equal six percent of all the registered voters in the last gubernatorial election (55,057 for 2020), but you also must meet a six percent threshold of registered voters from a majority of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. So you can’t just sit in the heavily populated Boise metroplex to collect, you also have to go to far-flung remote districts with fewer voters than cows.

But Mississippi’s process requires twice the signatures – 12 percent of the voters from last gubernatorial election. That was 86,185 valid signatures. The campaign collected over 105,000 signatures and that cost them over $2.1 million. The latest polling shows 67 percent of Mississippians favor the measure.

Professional signature gathering firms provided estimates to Idaho’s medical marijuana activists of $350,000 to $500,000 to put medical marijuana on the Idaho ballot. Polling commissioned by the seemingly interested national policy organization showed 72 percent support for medical marijuana among Idaho voters, support that increased the more they learned about the Idaho Cannabis Coalition’s proposal.

For half a million dollars, Idaho could have been the next medical marijuana state. Making the ballot has always been the only question, as polls have consistently shown about three-in-four Idahoans are for it.

So why do funders drop $2 million on a state in the Deep South with higher thresholds to make the ballot and less support in the polls than Idaho? Why do funders drop $1 million for medical marijuana on a Great Plains state that’s failed twice to pass medical marijuana, and another $1 million on legalization when legalization on the ballot in North Dakota in 2018 only got 40.55 percent of the vote?

Was it something I said?

If the language of the initiative is good and the polling is solid and the costs are low, there is only one other variable in the equation; the people running the initiative.

Maybe it’s me.

From the beginning of the Idaho Cannabis Coalition’s campaign, I have been its campaign spokesperson. My father, John Belville, is the Chief Petitioner. My business partner, Bill Esbensen, is also involved and has been since the first Idaho medical marijuana campaign effort in 2010. My business and life partner, Lori Duckworth, is also on the steering committee.

As you may know, I have a long career in marijuana policy broadcasting. From 2006, when South Dakota was losing its first medical marijuana initiative, to 2018, when North Dakota passed medical marijuana, I reported on every campaign to reform marijuana laws.

In that time, I have ruffled more than flock’s worth of feathers. When national organizations made bad moves, I called them out on it. When national leaders made bad moves, I excoriated them about it. There are probably a few people with lots of money and influence who would not enjoy seeing the name “Radical” Russ Belville associated with a campaign.

Maybe national funders don’t like me making local cops look bad?

If that’s the case, they have my number and could have asked me (or us) to step aside at any time. All of us involved in this campaign simply want to see our friends and family in Idaho no longer subject to arrest and imprisonment for using the medicine they regularly cross state lines to buy. If that means sacking us an replacing us with different campaign leaders, we’d have gladly handed over the headaches and stress that come with running an unfunded volunteer campaign.

But that call never came. Month after month, through Fall 2019 and Winter 2020, we were assured that national funders were interested. We received nominal funding, just enough to reimburse us for the money we spent out of our own pockets to print petitions and set up the campaign. Those big Oregon / South Dakota / Mississippi funds never came.

We’ll be back

I can handle rejection. I’m used to my big mouth getting me in trouble. But to string along my partners, Lori and Bill, who both faced down multiple felonies to provide medicine to sick and disabled people, is unconscionable. To keep us hanging on, the scores of volunteers who joined our campaign and the over 40,000 Idahoans we got to sign with the promise that this time the national orgs were behind us and this time we’ll make the ballot and win, breaks my heart.

Unless and until there arises a professional, well-funded campaign to pass medical marijuana in Idaho, we will be back. We’ve already learned our lesson – don’t wait on empty promises of funding at the national level – and have begun cultivating local funders to begin our 2022 campaign at the earliest possible date to maximize the 180 days we have to collect signatures.

And like South Dakota, we will present both a medical marijuana and a marijuana legalization initiative for the ballot. It costs us no more to have our volunteers hold two clipboards instead of one.

Until then, sick and disabled Idahoans currently committing felonies to use their medicine will just have to watch as the state next door stops arresting people for cocaine, meth, and heroin and lets patients use magic mushrooms. Idahoans who can still be arrested and imprisoned for possession of industrial hemp or low-THC CBD oil will have to watch as South Dakota and Mississippi stop arresting patients for medical marijuana.

Except there’s a catch. The Idaho legislature is aching to make the initiative process even harder. Last session, they tried to increase the signature threshold from six percent to ten percent, increase the minimum districts one must collect six percent in from 18 to 24 (of 35), and decrease the time to gather those signatures from 180 days to 60 days. That passed both houses and only failed to become law by a governor’s veto.

So when we try again for 2022 or 2024 and beyond, it may be far harder to qualify for the ballot. National funders may have missed the cheapest opportunity to flip Idaho.