Idaho a gauntlet for interstate cannabis traffic

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Photo courtesy of Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office The Kootenai County Sheriff’s K9 “Pogo” and his handler helped confiscate 58 pounds of marijuana, cash, methamphetamine, and a firearm from a motorist traveling east to Montana over Fourth of July Pass in this February 2018 photo. Because it is surrounded by states where marijuana is legal in some form — marijuana is considered legal for medical use in Montana and has been decriminalized in Washington — Idaho is a major travel corridor for cannabis trafficking. Trafficking carries a mandatory minimum sentence in the Gem State.

When state police in southern Idaho last January seized a semi-truck containing 6,700 pounds of hemp valued at $1.3 million, confiscated the industrial product and moved to prosecute the drivers and sell the truck, it was reflective of the state’s stringent marijuana rules.

Under Idaho law, anything that tests positive for THC is considered marijuana. Hemp contains trace quantities of THC, but doesn’t get a person high.

As the state faces a civil suit by Big Sky Scientific, the owners of the seized hemp, Gov. Brad Little in an executive order two weeks ago said Idaho’s hemp laws conflict with the latest federal farm bill. Little legalized the interstate transport of hemp through Idaho while reiterating that rules regarding illegal marijuana — with its higher THC levels — will continue to be stringently enforced in the Gem State.

“From the start, I have stated I am not opposed to a new crop such as hemp, but that we need to be sure the production and shipping of industrial hemp is not a front to smuggle illicit drugs into and around Idaho,” Little said.

Several states, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado — the destination of the seized truck — have decriminalized marijuana. Montana and Utah have mixed laws that include allowing pot for medicinal use.

Although marijuana laws across the country are changing at a rapid pace, Idaho remains staunchly prohibitionist.

That means the Gem State is a barrier to the transport of pot from Washington to places such as Montana.

The number of pot seizures since marijuana laws changed in bordering states is indicative of the trend.

Although state police do not track marijuana busts by the highway corridor where the bust occurred, the Panhandle’s major west-to-east routes include highways 2 and 200 in Bonner County, Interstate 90 in Kootenai and Shoshone counties, and Highway 12, which runs from Lewiston in Nez Perce County through a rural chunk of Idaho including Clearwater and Idaho counties. Highway 12 traverses the south side of Lolo Pass before striking into Montana south of Missoula.

Marijuana busts in counties along the I-90 corridor essentially tripled from 216 in 2015 — a year after the first recreational cannabis shops in Washington opened to the public — to 614 in 2018.

So far this year, 511 busts have been reported in Kootenai and Shoshone counties.

Idaho State Police Sgt. Ken Yount of Lewiston said his troopers have also seen upticks in pot busts along the Highway 12 corridor that includes Lewiston. The town lies across the Snake River from Clarkston, Wash., and its three cannabis dispensaries.

“We see a lot of product that has obviously been purchased in a dispensary,” Yount said.

Troopers from Lewiston’s District 2 office regularly confiscate bulk marijuana in bags or bundles, as well as concentrate.

“We’ve been encountering a lot more wholesale,” Yount told The Press.

Pot busts along the Highway 12 corridor have increased from 198 to 292 since 2015.

His department works closely with a drug task force and local law enforcement to stymie trafficking through the corridor.

“A lot of it is destined for Montana,” he said.

The largest batch seized last year was 35 pounds, Yount said. Quantities usually range from a pound to five or 10 pounds.

Quantities on the I-90 corridor have been larger. Two men earlier this year were busted with 20 pounds. Brandon S. Garrett, 34, and Crishun J. Singleton, 38, both from Louisiana, were arrested for trafficking marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. In February 2018, county deputies assisted ISP in arresting Michael A. Campbell, 70, a former school teacher from Yakima who was heading west over Fourth of July Pass in a compact car with 58 pounds of marijuana, $1,400 cash, methamphetamine, and a loaded pistol.

Recently, a Coeur d’Alene court sentenced a 21-year-old Washington man to prison for transporting marijuana and other drugs to Missoula. Sylar R. Smith will be eligible for parole after two years as part of a five-year sentence.

Many of the people arrested with marijuana claim to have medical marijuana cards, which Idaho does not recognize, and often they are unaware of Idaho’s laws. The quantities they carry fall into Idaho’s trafficking statute. Anything over a pound will draw a mandatory minimum sentence of one year or more in prison.

“You got to move it to sell it,” Yount said.

As the state awaits the result of its suit with Big Sky Scientific — one of the drivers pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and the tractor trailer truck has been returned — the Idaho Legislature will address a new hemp law next session.

In the meantime, a push to legalize marijuana in some form in Idaho remains an uphill proposition.

A reform bill fell short in last year’s session and a new push needs to collect more than 55,000 signatures by April 30 to qualify for the 2020 ballot.

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