Idaho Falls hosted on Wednesday its first cannabis education event, where about three dozen attendees learned about the medicinal uses of cannabis, as well as the history and politics surrounding the controversial plant.

Idaho Cannabis Education, a local advocacy group, hosted the event at The Gem. It featured four speakers, all of whom are advocates for the legalization of cannabis for medicinal use. 

Cannabis is currently illegal in all forms in Idaho. Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C., including all the states that border Idaho, except Wyoming, have legalized medicinal cannabis use. 

Idaho Cannabis Education, along with Legalize Idaho, its statewide umbrella organization, hope to change Idaho's cannabis laws next year. The education event, which will become a monthly occurrence, is meant to teach Idaho Falls residents about the health effects of medicinal cannabis and encourage them to push local representatives to make those uses legal. 

"We’re trying to work towards a community meeting where people can communicate back and forth, figure out ways that we can get the information, education out there," said Nathaniel Pickering, Idaho Cannabis Education's organizer. 

The first event began with a cannabis history lesson. 

Dennis Hansen, an advocate for hemp legalization, explained the history of the hemp crop in the United States. It was an important crop for textiles and manufacturing, prior to being banned by the federal government, Hansen said. 

Clothing made of cotton, paper made of trees and even cars made of steel could instead be manufactured using the more durable hemp, he said. 

Hemp was made illegal by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and it was demonized by the media because of the psychoactive effects of its cousin plant, marijuana, Hansen said. (There was a brief reprieve from the hemp ban during World War II as it was grown for making uniforms, canvas and other materials, The Des Moines Register reported.)

While hemp and marijuana are both part of the cannabis family, they each have different applications, depending on how they are cultivated. Hemp lacks the high concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element in marijuana, although hemp never completely lacks THC. 

The federal government banned cannabis, including both hemp and marijuana, from 1937 until last year, when Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the farm bill. The bill, among many other things, legalized hemp for commercial use. 

"Now, federally, hemp is a crop, just like a potato or corn or anything else," Hansen said. 

The legalization of hemp paves the way for farmers and entrepreneurs to cultivate the plant not just for industrial or manufacturing uses but for medicinal uses as well. 

Legalization advocates say cannabidiol (CBD), a natural element in cannabis plants, which is often extracted as an oil, can be used to treat ailments such as anxiety, movement disorders, seizures and chronic pain. 

The farm bill essentially removed hemp-derived CBD from the list of federally controlled substances — making the distinction between marijuana and hemp plants — and left it up to the states to decide whether they would allow the sale of CBD products. 

A bill that would legalize hemp for commercial use was introduced this month in Idaho's House of Representatives.

Hansen showed an 18-minute video explaining the health benefits of CBD. Then, he fielded audience questions, ranging from how cannabis can treat specific medical conditions to whether CBD oil and its trace amounts of THC will show up on an employer-administered drug test. 

He recommended consulting a doctor on specific medical conditions, although he said cannabis is often a better alternative to prescription drugs. 

While all CBD oils have THC, they often have such low amounts of THC that they won't trigger a positive drug test result, Hansen said. 

Two local veterans spoke after Hansen about how they use cannabis to treat medical conditions and injuries sustained in the military. 

Ryan Parker said he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, which led to problems with anxiety and depression, following his 10-year Army career.  

"I'm going to come right out and say, 'I'm a gigantic advocate for cannabis,'" Parker said. 

Parker said he's been dealing with medical treatments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs since he came back from his first deployment in 2005. After trying a slew of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medicines, anti-psychotics and "things that I shouldn't have even been taking," Parker tried cannabis. Specifically products that are high in CBD and low in THC. 

"I went from taking about 10 to a dozen medications to taking four," he said. "I was able to do that because of a derivative of a simple plant." 

Parker said hopes to change the "stoner" stereotypes surrounding cannabis users.

"People like to think that anybody that uses this is an overweight guy, sitting on his couch, covered in chip crumbs," he said. "That's just not the case. The majority of us, we're pretty smart, we're well read, we're intelligent, we know what we're taking about." 

Matthew Davis, a former Marine, said he sustained injuries in Bosnia that required hip replacement and back surgery.

"At the worst of the worst, maybe like a couple years ago, (doctors) had me on four to five OxyContin a day and they were going to put a pain pump in me," Davis said. "I switched over to cannabis. I'm a daily cannabis user. I do not take any opiates. I don't take any anti-depressants. I don't take any of the anxiety pills."

Davis said the VA and local doctors helped him figure out a treatment plan so that he could use cannabis daily to mitigate his pain.

"With cannabis I was off the pain pills, I was able to move better, I'm happier, I got my life back," he said.

"I turned out a little bit more 'hippy' — it's what you get," he added. 

David Lybolt, a team leader for Legalize Idaho’s Pocatello branch, spoke at the event about working with legislators to get medicinal cannabis legalized. 

Lybolt, who runs a similar educational meeting once a month in Pocatello, said people shouldn't be afraid to talk about cannabis, whether that means reaching out to a legislator or asking a doctor about cannabis medicines. 

"We have to keep the conversation going," he said. "If you're involved in this you've got to stay involved. If we want to see change we need to have our voices heard."

Pickering said he was surprised by the crowd — 35 to 40 people — that attended Idaho Cannabis Education's first event. While he was hoping for more attendees, he liked that those who showed up were older. 

"I was really happy to see the older crowd here and asking the questions that they were asking and being so curious," he said. "We’re hoping that they’ll go home and tell their family members and friends what they heard so next time they might come."

A date has not been set for the next event.

Reporter Ryan Suppe can be reached at 208-542-6762. Follow him on Twitter: @salsuppe.

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