New marijuana law could cause problems on the Palouse
The college towns of Pullman and Moscow may only be separated by an eight-mile stretch of highway. But the divide between their states’ marijuana policies is becoming much wider.
Today adult recreational marijuana use became legal in Washington, while it remains illegal in Idaho. Law enforcement officers worry it will lead to more marijuana crossing state lines in areas like the Palouse, where about 33,000 college students live. Transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal felony, but it’s unclear how – or if – the federal ban will be enforced.
“If it’s legal eight miles away … and it’s not legal here, one would only expect one would be bringing it to Idaho,” said Lt. Brannon Jordan of the Latah County Sheriff’s Office.
Contradictory state and federal policies leave some questions unanswered on both sides of the state line.
Initiative 502, approved by Washington voters last month, allows adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, or 16 ounces of solid marijuana-infused products like brownies, or 72 ounces of infused liquid, like oil, for personal use.
“That’s a lot of marijuana,” Moscow police Lt. Dave Lehmitz said. In Idaho, possessing up to three ounces is considered a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. Possession of more than three ounces is a felony.
Despite changing state laws, the federal government still considers marijuana a dangerous controlled substance.
Captain Steve Richardson with the Idaho State Police said the state has a reputation for being a destination for marijuana dealers who can draw a higher rate selling the drug.
Currently, 65 percent of the marijuana seized by Idaho troopers is brought into the state from other states, including Washington and Colorado, which both voted in November to legalize marijuana. Those seizures typically involve more than a pound of marijuana supposedly brought into Idaho for medical purposes, according to the ISP.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haus in Boise said many marijuana-related cases never make it to the federal level.
While it is a federal felony to transport marijuana, a college student taking a joint across the border does not typically face felony charges.
“Federally, we would not get involved,” Haus said. “Not that we couldn’t, but as a matter of choice on small quantities it’s not what we do federally.”
A bloody history
Pullman police Cmdr. Chris Tennant remembers responding as a young patrol officer to drunken-driving accidents along State Route 270, the two-lane highway between Pullman and Moscow. When Tennant joined the Pullman force in 1982, the drinking age in Idaho was 19, and underage Washington students crossed the state border to drink legally in Idaho.
“We’d just pull in behind cars and arrest drunk after drunk after drunk,” he said.
People died frequently along the stretch, most of them due to alcohol and many of them students. Idaho raised its drinking age to 21 in 1987. While neither Pullman nor Moscow police have plans to increase patrols on the Pullman-Moscow highway like in the 1980s, Moscow’s Lehmitz expressed concern about a potential increase in driving under the influence of marijuana.
The Quad Cities Drug Task Force, which oversees Pullman, Moscow, Lewiston and Clarkston, said about 380 DUI arrests were made for alcohol, marijuana and other drugs last year. That’s about one a day.
“We can have some issues with college-aged kids going over to WSU, going over to a party, marijuana’s introduced in a legal means, and now they’re coming back to the state of Idaho,” Lehmitz said.
Most of the drug arrests in the Pullman-Moscow area involve marijuana. In Moscow, a majority of drug calls are for marijuana already, said Lehmitz, who leads the University of Idaho campus division of the Moscow police. At WSU, upward of 90 percent of drug calls are for marijuana, said Assistant Chief Steve Hansen with the campus police.
History probably won’t repeat itself with marijuana in the Pullman-Moscow area, Tennant said, but the area can still expect some accidents.
“I’m hoping we don’t get to that point again on the highway, although we’ll probably see some accidents due to marijuana-impaired driving,” he said.
With the region’s concentration of college students, there’s a higher likelihood for potential drug use and abuse, Tennant said.
Jordan predicts an increase in the number of marijuana possession cases in Moscow as a result of the new legislation.
Idaho marijuana advocacy lawyer Mike Vieth echoed Jordan’s prediction. “I’m sure there’s going to be some sharing going on between Cougars and Vandals,” Vieth said.
The Murrow News Service provides storieswritten by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.