Idaho Bucks International Trend, Increases Criminal Penalties

Boise capital building
Photo: txking / Shutterstock

BOISE, ID. – In 2022, Idaho arrested an estimated 4,992 individuals for cannabis possession, marking the third consecutive annual increase. This year, if state lawmakers have their way, fines in the state will increase, too. 

And yet, legislators do not expect a new bill that would levy a mandatory minimum fine for first-time misdemeanor offenders to result in increased state revenues.


While much of the rest of the country is decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis, Idaho legislators are considering ID H0559, introduced to the House State Affairs Committee by Rep. Bruce Skaug (R). The bill would add a minimum fine of $420 to current law, which prescribes a maximum fine of $1,000 and incarceration for up to one year for possessing less than three ounces. Possessing three ounces to one pound is considered a felony punishable by up to five years incarceration and a maximum fine of $10,000.

Polls have shown 70 percent of Idahoans support a medical marijuana program for their state. Nevertheless, all state-level efforts for cannabis reform have failed to progress in the legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats four to one.

“This is one of the many areas where the supermajority Republican-dominated legislature is out of step with the desires of Idahoans,” said Rep. Ilana Rubel (D), who introduced a bill to legalize cannabis for medical use in 2021. “Even if there is action at the federal level, I am not very optimistic. This just seems to be a place where the GOP supermajority has really dug in.”

Idaho shares a border with six other states, most of which have enacted some form of medical and/or adult-use legalization. Licensed dispensaries in cannabis-friendly border cities like Ontario in Malheur County, Oregon have been reaping the benefits of Idaho’s prohibition for years. Malheur County produced more than $100 million in cannabis sales in 2022, approximately 10 percent of Oregon’s annual sales, despite accounting for less than one percent of the state’s population. Ontario is the only city in the county with dispensaries. Its population of 11,000 is dwarfed by its 800,000 neighbors who live in the Boise metropolitan area less than an hour’s drive away, many of whom drive across the state line to buy cannabis.

Even with some Republican support, substantive change still appears far out of reach. In early 2023, Rep. John Vander Woude (R) introduced the Idaho Medical Cannabis Act as a personal bill to authorize and regulate the use of medical cannabis. Personal bills are not typically introduced with hopes of passing, because they circumvent the standard process of bringing a draft bill to an appropriate committee for an introductory hearing. While motivations can vary, personal bills often are intended to spur serious conversations or placate constituents. After its first reading, Woude’s bill was filed in the Office of the Chief Clerk, where it died. In 2012, former Rep. Tom Trail introduced similar legislation with the same result.

If medical marijuana is facing an uphill battle in the state with support from more than two-thirds of voters, recreational cannabis or decriminalization are staring at an immovable object. Polling has shown only 48 percent of Idaho voters would support adult-use legalization.

Despite the difficult road, advocates have no intention of quitting. Kind Idaho is leading the effort to put medical marijuana on the November ballot in the form of the Idaho Medical Marijuana Initiative. Kind, a political action committee and 501(c)(4) nonprofit, launched in 2021 but failed to collect enough signatures for the 2022 ballot.

In Idaho, the number of signatures required to place a measure on the ballot is equal to about six percent of registered voters. Kind Idaho will need to collect 62,896 valid signatures from registered voters in 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts by May 1 to ensure the bill can appear on the Nov. 5 ballot as an initiated state statute.

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