Idaho is having a hard time letting go of Reefer Madness. Despite being bordered by four states with legal medical cannabis, Idaho’s prohibition is so complete that it crushes the hopes of kids suffering from epileptic seizures.
In Idaho, a bill to allow people like Josh Phillips to access CBD oil was passed by the state legislature in 2015, only to be defeated by a group of powerful special interests—including cops, prosecutors, and pharmaceutical companies—with direct access to policy makers in Boise. Emails obtained by Reason reveal a behind-the-scenes effort organized by the state’s Office of Drug Policy to derail the CBD legislation and, after it passed against the wishes of Gov. Butch Otter and his administration, to use executive authority to replace the bill with an alternative treatment program that has done nothing to help Josh Phillips or many other Idahoans suffering from seizures.
The story begins with 19-year-old Josh Phillips, a wrestling enthusiast whose seizures prevented him from getting a chance at the state championship, and continue to put up roadblocks to a normal life. He is among the one-third of patients with intractable epilepsy, meaning pharmaceutical medications cannot control his seizures. He even went through brain surgery.
Now Josh wants to use cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a cannabis extract that is showing incredible results in stopping epileptic seizures. CBD, which does not cause a high, is available in pure, regulated forms in other states such as Colorado. But in Idaho Josh must become a criminal to use this miraculous substance.
The rapid expansion of medical cannabis research is continually showing that, in many cases, CBD oil is the only effective treatment for stopping seizures where all other drugs fail. The recent American Epilepsy Society conference hailed it as the most promising treatment.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of videos exist of parents stopping their child’s seizure with CBD oil treatment, including a new nasal spray that consistently stops grand mal seizures within 20 seconds. There are countless stories of families moving to Colorado or another cannabis-friendly state so they can ease their child’s suffering with pure products from reputable manufacturers.
In the face of this indisputable evidence, 28 states have legalized medical cannabis, even socially conservative ones such as Utah. Idaho remains a holdout, and the forces perpetuating the injustice of prohibition are being exposed in all their ruthless ways.
What makes this story all the more infuriating is that Governor Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter is a former outspoken advocate for cannabis legalization, even saying:
If a person, of his own free will, wants to use marijuana, I question whether the government has any propriety in telling him he can’t.
As recently as 2006, Otter reaffirmed this position, saying: “Some of these people, the only way they can get relief is by smoking marijuana.”
But assuming the role of Idaho Governor seems to have changed his values. Moneyed interests, rather than commitment to freedom, now guide Otter’s hand. Instead of making history in Idaho, he abused the power of the executive to protect the profits of cops and Big Pharma.
“I don’t know what more I or senior members of my administration could have done to help legislators understand our strong opposition to this legislation,” Otter wrote in his veto message. “Both the House and Senate were told by the Office of Drug Policy, the Department of Public Welfare, and the Idaho State Police—as well as prosecutors and local law enforcement officers throughout Idaho—that there were too many questions and problems and too few answers and solutions in this bill to let it become law.”
The bill would have been among the most restrictive in the country, only allowing physicians to prescribe CBD extract to patients with intractable epilepsy that don’t respond to Pharma medications.
Even such a minuscule amount of freedom is too much for Idaho law enforcement, who see only threats to their power and profits. Civil asset forfeiture, or Policing for Profit, is an insidious abuse of power where innocent people have their cash and property stolen by cops with often made-up suspicions of illicit drug use.
The Institute for Justice gives Idaho a D- grade for its rampant, unchecked policing for profit. The state can retain up to 100 percent of the proceeds, innocent people must undergo court and attorney fees to get their property back, and there is very little transparency. Idaho cops don’t even have to report how much they take, how they take it or why.
Many states have abolished or limited civil asset forfeiture, but Idaho cops have a strong ally in the governor. Cannabis prohibition is critical to their success at stealing from the citizenry.
Lobbyists for law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys peddled unproven myths about the dangers of decriminalization through Elisha Figueroa, director of the Idaho Office of Drug Policy.
Officially, the Office of Drug Policy is tasked with “providing policy, education, prevention and treatment resources” and works toward “an Idaho free from the devastating social, health and economic consequences of substance abuse” by funding anti-drug initiatives and overseeing substance abuse programs. Politically, the office serves as a nexus for the various special interests that favor the status quo of drug prohibition in Idaho, giving them a special place within the apparatus of state government.
This is also where Big Pharma stepped in.
The pharmaceutical industry recognizes the threat medical cannabis poses to their immense profits. As we have reported, people are giving up prescription pills – especially opioids – for cannabis in states with medical use freedom.
Big Pharma’s efforts to maintain prohibition are failing in other states, where their millions have proved no match for the will of the voters. But in Idaho, the Pharma monopoly is safe.
The industry lobbying group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA), twice gave Governor Otter the maximum allowable contribution, who repaid that favor many times over with the CBD bill veto.
Email records show that Figueroa reached out to PhRMA lobbyist Jeremy Pisca to discuss “the Office of Drug Policy’s work on the CBD oil issue.”
But a month after reaching out to Pisca, Figueroa was trying to steer the state legislature and the Otter administration toward an alternative to CBD oil legalization: a limited clinical trial of a new drug. In a primer sent to Perkins on February 27, Figueroa outlined three potential outcomes for the CBD bill. The “preferred option,” she wrote, was to “try to kill” the CBD bill “and promote the [Food and Drug Administration] trial as an alternative.”
The timeline suggests that the Office of Drug Policy was never really working with the legislature to pass a mutually agreeable version of the bill, but was moving on a parallel track from the start.
Never let a tragedy go to waste, in the minds of Pharma companies. If people are passionate about using a plant to cure seizures, keep criminalizing that plant and instead develop a patented version of the plant’s active ingredient.
Figueroa was getting advice from a physician with ties to the maker of Epidiolex. While Epidiolex, derived from CBD oil, is also showing promise for epilepsy, it’s a long process to get patented Pharma drugs to market.
Meanwhile, Idaho parents can only watch as parents in other, more enlightened states ease the suffering of their children with a plant extract – a behavior that makes them a criminal in Idaho.
“We’re reminded every day when [Julia] has seizures of that decision, that it was vetoed,” Sara Gambassis told Boise State Public Radio. “It’s not just we heard the news and it was over. We see her every day having seizures. We see her having seizures and hitting her head, and because she’s non-verbal she can’t even tell us how it feels.”
Otter’s veto grew out of a system controlled by powerful interests who benefit from the maintenance of the status quo. Law enforcement wants to keep fighting the war on drugs—even when that means fighting kids with seizures—because it provides an endless stream of reasons for police departments to be given more money and the latest tech, with few questions asked. And pharmaceutical companies worry that legal weed will undercut the market they’ve spent decades capturing, because it provides an alternative for people suffering from pain, seizures, and other ailments. None of those incentives are changing, even as the edifice of marijuana prohibition crumbles away in other states.
The senseless prohibition of CBD oil is wrecking families. Kelly Osbourne, a 23-year-old mother, had her kids taken by the state for attempting to give her daughter cannabis-infused butter to stop her seizures.
“They’ve already taken my life—they’ve taken my kids—so at this point, I really don’t have anything else to lose,” said Osborne.
Until the tyranny of heartless, irrational politicians — and the ruthless greed of the corporations that keep them in power — can finally be dispelled, stories like Kelly Osbourne and Josh Phillips will continue playing out in Idaho and the minority of states where cannabis prohibition reigns.