Update: After reconsidering the legislation, a committee in the Idaho House approved the cannabidiol oil bill in a 12-4 vote.
Idaho is not a place one would expect to see bipartisanship. Regardless of whether you use the term “Republican” or “conservative,” Idaho consistently shows up in the top 5 states for that affiliation.
The political news coming out of the state has been a long litany of arch-conservatism that has raised several eyebrows on the national stage. Recent examples have included legislators boycotting a Buddhist prayer in the Legislature, citing the state’s Christian roots, and calling for the impeachment of district judges who rule in favor of marriage equality.
It is, therefore, both surprising and encouraging that the Idaho Senate has voted to approve a measure that is traditionally something more in line with liberal and libertarian thinking than anything the Republican Party is known for.
In a 22-12 vote, the Senate passed S. 1146, legalizing the use of “cannabidiol oil” for the mitigation of “an intractable seizure disorder” when prescribed by a “physician licensed under chapter 18, title 54.” In plain English, this means the bill permits the use of a cannabis extract for the treatment of epilepsy.
S. 1146 passed on a Republican vote. While all seven Democrats in the Senate voted in favor, their votes were, to be blunt, superfluous to the proceedings. A majority of Republicans seated in the Senate voted in favor, overriding the twelve Republican senators who stood against the bill. This was an entirely Republican show, and it stands in stark contrast to tradition.
Even within very recent history, the divide over cannabis variants being allowed for medicinal purposes has clearly been partisan. Just days after the midterm elections landed strongly in favor of Republican candidates, the nonpartisan Republican Views website ran a piece discussing the disparity between Republican and Democratic perspectives on marijuana. While two-thirds of Democrats supported legalization, Republicans could only muster a one-third approval rate.
Bill sponsor Curt McKenzie (R) certainly is aware of this distinction. Even while enthusiastically supporting his bill, he has been extremely careful to draw distinctions between cannabidiol oil and marijuana.Despite the
many other medical ailments that have shown positive reactions to prescribed marijuana, McKenzie explicitly crafted this bill to have an extremely narrow application. The bill allows the prescribed treatment of epilepsy “in a way that doesn't open the door to other things."
This distinction is further enhanced by the specifics of the oil itself.
Cannabis has several variant breeds. The marijuana out there on the streets has been selectively bred to have a very high concentration of THC, the drug that gives that mind-altering high. Cannabidiol oil, on the other hand, comes from a variant that has very little THC, but instead produces high levels of CBD. It is this component that helps mitigate epileptic seizures.
McKenzie's concern has some justification. A wave of THC legalization has spread across the nation, including in Idaho’s neighbors. Strongly backed by Democrats, Washington legalized marijuana for all uses in 2012, followed by Oregon in November. Nevada currently has a referendum in the works, while Utah and Wyoming both had bills presented (and narrowly voted down) in early 2015.
A referendum approved medical marijuana in Montana in 2004; however, the state Legislature has failed to implement it for 11 years.
Even aside from the extremely narrow provision for use, S. 1146 complicates things further by providing no provisions for access to cannabidiol oil. The law does not explicitly allow doctors or pharmacies to possess the oil. Those who qualify for use would have to go out of state in order to fill their prescriptions.
Still, even a crack this small is promising. S. 1146’s passage from the Senate and into the House is a clear victory for scientific pragmatism.
While Republicans nationwide are often perceived as having a “science problem," it was, in fact, science that made the case for Idaho’s senators. A big part of the reason McKenzie wrote the bill in the first place was his understanding of how the oil works. He addressed this on his Facebook page.
“The Idaho law would limit the oil to no more than 0.3% THC, so it would be impossible to get high off of it,” he stated.
So while arguments that non-violent drug crime is overcrowding our prisons needlessly, or that legalization is a stunning revenue producer for states strapped for cash, it is, in fact, scientific pragmatism that has managed to get a toe in the door in Idaho. Republicans, buoyed by a scientific fact they did not feel threatened by, were able to adopt a stance traditionally taken by Democrats and move it forward on the merits.
It’s not bipartisanship as we normally define it, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.