The State's Burning Needs 

Medicinal marijuana and hemp make a showing unda'

A cubicle in the natural-light-filled bowels of the Statehouse is adorned with containers of Tempt brand "milk" products and empty cartons of Tempt's "frozen dessert." Sipping from a paper cup, the creamy chocolate beverage tastes an awful lot like milk. But while licking our lips, Unda' the Rotunda learned that the Canadian beverage contains no dairy at all--it is made from hemp seeds.

"We're the only industrialized nation that doesn't allow the growth of this stuff. I read that it had something to do with DuPont lobbying after World War II for the banning of hemp growth. We're currently shipping tens of millions of dollars to Canada [for hemp products]," said Boise Rep. Brian Cronin, a Democrat and one of a growing number of bi-partisan Idaho legislators, including Republican Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake, supporting the end of prohibition on hemp production in the United States.

Rep. Tom Trail of Moscow plans to introduce two cannabis-related bills in the coming weeks. The hemp resolution urges the federal government--along the lines of HR 1866, which Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul introduced to Congress a year ago--to allow the cultivation of industrial hemp, banned since 1970.

The other bill would legalize marijuana for medical use, similar to measures in effect in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Montana.

"I've gotten more e-mails on this than any other piece of legislation. A lot of them are people who suffer from severe trauma and injury, and so forth, or medical conditions," Trail said. "I've talked to many doctors who back it up, who say marijuana's the only thing that can relieve pain."

Recreational use of marijuana has long been prohibited in the United States, but the American Medical Association has now endorsed loosening restrictions on cannabis to allow for more medical research. The states that have allowed medical use have narrow guidelines that stipulate which conditions warrant a marijuana ID card. Ailments include cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief, according to the California Medical Marijuana Program.

Trail's major concern in drafting the bill was ensuring that the program is revenue-neutral, meaning that it requires no extra general funds from the state. According to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Project, the funds from marijuana licensing are the sole source of funding for the department.

"The growers and suppliers have to receive a permit--which they pay for--and this all goes into a fund that helps pay for the expenses of the program of health and welfare. And also, each individual patient has to obtain, and pay a fee for a license," Trail said. This model could work for Idaho, he added.

But California's budget has also benefited from taxes applied to sales. As of Dec. 31, 2009, 55 of 58 counties in California were issuing medical marijuana identification cards, said Ronald Owens, a spokesman for California's medical marijuana program.

Dispensaries are licensed to sell to cardholders. They are essentially co-ops, with a registered group of members. Members can purchase an ounce, subject to sales tax collected by the state. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are an estimated 2,100 dispensaries across the state of California. Each of these cooperatives is licensed with the state just like any other business. And taxed like any other business.

"We only work the retail side. It's our job to collect sales and use tax, a normal sales tax, charged like any other type of property. Our estimates are around $200 million are made in California from marijuana sales," said Anita Gore, a spokesperson for the California State Board of Equalization.

That $200 million, according to Gore, is an estimate of the annual revenue received from taxing marijuana sales alone. To put that in perspective, $200 million is about 10 [Correction: 100] times the amount Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter estimates can be saved by his project of weaning small state agencies off the general fund.

The uneasy relationship between green-friendly states and the continued War on Drugs in Washington, D.C., continues even now. Unda' the Rotunda spoke with one man who, at one time operated a legal grow operation in California after Proposition 215 passed.

"The biggest complaint from medical marijuana producers is that they're afraid to pay their taxes. They end up continually laundering money ..." he said. "They're hesitant to put their business on their tax forms because it's still illegal federally. There's a very lucrative industry for dirty accountants who'll help them write off their profits ..."

While the hemp bill appears to be gaining ground--the hemp plant does not have any psychoactive properties--Unda' could not find a single Idaho legislator who would join Trail on his medicinal quest. In California, easing the laws on marijuana has made it a less criminal enterprise and birthed an entirely new, highly profitable growth industry that supports the state government as well as other local businesses.

That's the free market at work.

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