What It’s Like to Live in Your Own Illegal Idaho: A Special Report

Published on February 10, 2016 · Last updated October 20, 2022

Idaho is an anomaly, an island of prohibition in a sea of legal cannabis. Two of its neighbors, Montana and Nevada, allow medical cannabis. To the west two others, Washington and Oregon have embraced recreational legalization. Even famously conservative Wyoming and Utah have laws allowing high-CBD strains. Idaho is the rare holdout. It’s a long, tough road for cannabis advocates working in a strictly illegal state. We got some insight last month into exactly how difficult it could be to turn this famously red state green.

Serra Frank & New Approach Idaho

It all started with a simple public meeting. In an effort to raise awareness about cannabis, New Approach Idaho, the group behind an Idaho medical marijuana initiative, organized a town hall meeting to debate legalization’s pros and cons. There were to be three pro-cannabis speakers and three anti-cannabis speakers. The meeting would be held on the Boise State University campus. But things didn’t go quite according to plan.

Bill Esbensen from New Approach Idaho and Tate Fegley with the Boise State University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy helped organize the town hall forum, which was attended by Idaho canna-activist Serra Frank. Frank is well known for her activism in Idaho. She has a long history of fighting for her parental rights as a medical cannabis user. And she helped organize a New Year’s Day smoke-out this year at the Idaho Capitol, which law enforcement shut down.

“They gave me two tickets,” Frank recalled. “One was for possession of marijuana — it was a joint — and then possession of paraphernalia for the doob tube.” She now faces a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each charge. The previous week she was written up for possession. “Once you invoke your rights in Idaho, they’ll arrest you for obstruction,” she said. “So now I’m facing up to four years in jail and $4,000 in fines for two incidents of merely possessing the only medicine that works for my condition, interstitial cystitis.”

The charges haven’t deterred her.

“I hope I get to go to court. It’s time for us to go to court, honestly,” she said. “I don’t think the people of Idaho believe that I, a disabled mother of two children, should be in jail for using medicine that helps me be a mother to my children.”

Marijuana Town Hall Forum at BSU

The New Year’s Day incident became the backdrop for the Boise State forum. The SSDP assembled a hodgepodge group of Idaho-based speakers to represent both sides of the argument.

The SSDP President, Tate Fegley, contacted the state’s drug czar, Elisha Figueroa, who directs the Idaho State Office for Drug Policy. Figueroa agreed to represent the anti-legalization side along with the Idaho State Police Lt. Brad Doty and Sgt. Jason Cagle.

Finding pro-legalization speakers wasn’t so easy.

Boise State University criminal justice professor Cody Jorgenson agreed to speak, but only on an anti-Drug War platform. Former state Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, who had supported hemp legislation in the past, was also booked for the event. Rounding out the pro-legalization side would be Russ Belville, a.k.a. “Radical Russ,” a radio personality. Belville runs his show, Cannabis Radio, out of Portland, Ore., but was born and raised in Idaho. He even attended Boise State University, where the forum was to be held.

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The forum had a strong lineup: a state official, two law enforcement representatives, a former legislator, an academic, and a radio-jock wild card.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

First, Trail, the former state representative, fell ill and canceled. Organizers scrambled to find a replacement. They booked Inge Fryklund, a former Chicago prosecutor and current member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Fryklund also happened to be a former Idaho resident.

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When SSDP informed Elisha Figueroa, the state drug czar, that she’d booked Fryklund and Belville, Figueroa balked.

“There has now been the last minute addition of another radical speaker from out of state,” she wrote in an email to the organizers. “It has become clear that what was billed as a college forum for meaningful discussion has turned into a choreographed pro-marijuana rally.”

With that, Figueroa canceled her appearance. The other two legalization opponents followed suit. And like that, every speaker on the anti-cannabis side of the debate had vanished.

Leafly reached out to Figueroa and Doty for comment. Figueroa would say only that the event “changed from what it was billed as, as a forum for the balanced discussion on the issue of marijuana legalization, to more of a pro-pot rally.” She declined to comment further.

Doty responded more fully. “We believed that we could dispel the misconceptions about how the current law is enforced by [state police] and share the experiences that our troopers and detectives see every day about the effects of drug use in our communities,” he said. “When the final list of participants was distributed the day before the event, the event appeared to have become something different.”

Jorgensen, the criminal justice professor, said he was disappointed with law enforcement’s absence. “My students and I weren’t too pleased by this, because we were interested in hearing their arguments and justifications for maintaining Idaho’s policies regarding marijuana, which are some of the harshest in the nation.”

Belville, who showed up to the forum as promised, downplayed Figueroa’s claim that organizers had hired “radical” speakers from out of state. “It’s hard to find pro-marijuana speakers who actually live in Idaho, because they’re terrified of being above ground,” he told Leafly. And while he lives out of state now, he was born in Idaho, went to high school and college there, and spent most of his adult life around Boise.

When Belville saw the message from Figueroa denouncing the forum as a pro-marijuana rally, he scoffed.

“The only thing that makes it a pro-marijuana event is that the anti people didn’t show up,” he said. “Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Her charge of ‘radical,’ out-of-state speakers is a swipe at me because my nickname online is Radical Russ. It was kind of shocking to me, because when Elisha Figueroa was getting her degree at Arizona State, I was skateboarding on the campus of Boise State. I have far more Idaho ties than this drug czar does.”

The organizers decided to go on with the show. “Because they canceled, it did turn into a pro-marijuana event,” Frank said. “We had three pro speakers and three empty chairs on the other side. We had the debate, but there was no rebuttal. We are planning to have another forum, and we’ll invite them again and hope they come down. We’ll just keep inviting them. It just shows that they have no weight to their argument if they won’t come down and debate with us.”

The forum was held in the BSU Student Union Building, with about 150 people in attendance. Another 8,000 or so listeners tuned in via a Cannabis Radio live stream.

With no opponents to debate, Belville downloaded the Idaho Office of Drug Policy’s fact sheet on marijuana and went through it, point by point, arguing against the office’s supposed facts one-by-one. The event ended around 9 p.m., and the crowd dispersed.

Then things really got interesting.

A Knock at the Motel Room Door

After the event wrapped up, Belville and New Approach organizer Bill Esbenson headed out.

When Belville arrived at his hotel, he checked into his room with the night manager. “There’s hardly anyone in the parking lot and none of the rooms next to me are booked,” he said he remembers thinking. “It’s pretty empty for a Tuesday night in Boise.”

He changed his clothes, flipped on Jimmy Fallon, and was singing along with the TV when he was startled by a heavy knocking at the door, he said.

“Who is it?” he called through the door.

“Probation and parole,” said the voice on the other side.

“Who?” Bellvile turned down the volume on the TV and looked out to see a man and a woman wearing official-looking jackets.

“Probation and parole!” The voice was more insistent this time.

Belville cut to the chase. “What do you want?”

“Could you open up the door? We just want to talk to you.”

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“No, I’m not going to open the door,” Belville said firmly. “I’m not on probation or on parole. What do you want with me?”

“We’ve got a woman who’s on probation who’s registered for your room and we just need to check to see if she’s in there. Could you just open the door up so we could see?”

“There’s no woman in this room. I’m the only one here and I just registered here today.”

They repeated their request. “Could you just open the door so we can talk about this?”

“No, I’m not going to open this door. I’m not on probation or parole. You guys can go get a warrant if you want me to open this door.”

Mention of the magic word “warrant” was enough to change the demeanor of the officers at the door.

“Look,” Belville recalled the male cop saying. “We know you’re smoking pot in there and that’s your own personal business and we don’t really care, but we’ve got a bunch of people on probation and parole here and we don’t want to see you fuck it up for all of them, so you just take that shit elsewhere.”

Because there was no arrest, there is no official documentation regarding the incident. Belville didn’t record the officers’ names, so Leafly was unable to confirm the incident through official channels.

Belville didn’t open the door. The officers eventually went away. But the encounter left him shaken. He wondered if he would wake up to a pounding at the door at a later hour, this time with warrant-bearing cops.

“You wanna know why it’s so hard to get an in-state Idaho speaker to speak up for marijuana?” Belville told Leafly. “It’s because the cops just might follow them from the event and bust them.”

An Island of Prohibition

Why has Idaho been so adamantly prohibitive? A number of factors figure into it. First, there’s a heavily Mormon population. Idaho contains the second highest percentage of residents belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints of any state in the U.S. after Utah. But even Utah has legalized low-THC cannabidiol oil for medical use.

Idaho’s lack of cannabis legalization isn’t for a lack of trying or support. A 2010 found that 74 percent of Idahoans support the use of marijuana for medical reasons. And yet time and time again, when legislators like Tom Trail would introduce medical marijuana or industrial hemp bills, or when voters would gather signatures for a marijuana initiative, inevitably the legislation would hit a roadblock or lack of action from the conservative, Republican-dominated legislature.

The most recent legislative effort, Senate Bill 1146, would have legalized CBD oil for patients and caretakers. It represents a bare minimum of assistance to patients. Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas have passed CBD-only laws. But in Idaho, even that was too much. Gov. Butch Otter vetoed the measure. When confronted with the indignation of voters, Otter agreed to allow only a limited CBD study for children with epilepsy.

We asked Serra Frank about why she thinks Idaho has been so reluctant to allow even the slightest cannabis reform.

“I’m sure it has to do with investments in things like private prisons and pharmaceutical companies,” she said. “When our CBD law came up, the governor vetoed it. After he vetoed it, one of the local newspapers did a report about who his donors are, and the majority of them were pharmaceutical companies. So that kind of tells us why we’re still stuck in the past.”

Otter’s campaign contributions indeed include a number of pharmaceutical companies as well as Monsanto, Altria and Reynolds American (major tobacco players), and Anheuser-Busch. Taken together, those contributions compose a significant portion of Otter’s overall funding.

Serra Frank’s parting words reflect the deep divide she feels between access to medicine and the state she’s called home for most of her life.

“Everyone says, ‘Welcome to Idaho, time to change your clocks back 30 years. Come to Idaho on vacation, leave on probation,’” she said.

“Our criminal justice system here is a giant machine, just an assembly line in a lot of places. I used to live in Washington and Oregon, and I lived that medical program. I’ve seen the dispensaries. I know what we could have in Idaho, and I’m on a mission to bring that home.”

Frank’s difficulties with Idaho’s powers that be have left her undeterred. She’s already planning New Approach Idaho’s next big event: the first annual Boise Hempfest celebration, on April 23 at Julia Davis Park. Frank and her fellow volunteers will be collecting signatures and educating the masses, against all odds.

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Lisa Rough
Lisa Rough
Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.
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