It’s been a busy year for cannabis issues in Utah, which could be one of the next states to legalize medical marijuana—if the opposition doesn’t overtake legalization efforts.
Voters will decide on a medical marijuana ballot initiative this November and Gov. Gary Herbert has promised a more palatable legislative push for legal medical cannabis should the initiative fail, but Matthew Schweich, deputy director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ opposition and other opposition campaigns could pose a risk.
MPP has supported the medical marijuana ballot initiative campaign in the state, which has been run by the Utah Patients Coalition, a political campaign committee. MPP has provided financial support and offered expertise in cannabis policy reform to the Utah Patients Coalition team, Schweich said, facing ample adversity.
“Our opponents are dishonestly describing this effort as legalization of recreational marijuana,” Schweich told Cannabis Business Times. “That is not true, as this campaign is solely intended to establish a medical cannabis law in Utah.”
In May, the Church released a seven-page memo describing the “legal issues” surrounding the ballot initiative and 31 reasons that the Church opposes the effort, including claims that the measure would allow people to grow as many as six cannabis plants and create “significant challenges for law enforcement,” according to a Salt Lake Tribune report.
The Church’s opposition to the ballot initiative is significant, Schweich said. “However, we remain hopeful that a strong majority of voters will approve this initiative in November,” he added. “The initiative has consistently polled very high in terms of public support. However, a well-funded opposition campaign continues to present a risk.”
Such opposition could rely on the support of the Church or other groups, he added. “We have seen a variety of opposition campaigns working to defeat cannabis ballot initiatives in the past.”
Drug Safe Utah sued Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in May, compiling a long list of arguments about why the ballot initiative should not be approved for the November ballot and alleging that a medical marijuana law in Utah would violate federal anti-cannabis laws. Supporters of the initiative have accused the organization of “deceptive tactics” in trying to persuade people to rescind their signatures from the initiative petition, according to a local Fox affiliate’s news report.
Cox and the Utah Patients Coalition asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit in June, arguing that the “plaintiffs lack standing because they have not been injured by the mere presence of the initiative on the ballot” and because voters may ultimately reject the initiative.
Drug Safe Utah dropped the lawsuit in early July, but pledged to keep making the argument that the initiative is a bad idea.
Utah passed a “right to try” law earlier this year that allows terminally ill patients access to medicinal cannabis, but the regulations needed to implement the program are not expected to be finalized until next year.
If passed, the ballot initiative will expand this program and establish a law to allow patients to access legal medical cannabis to treat qualifying conditions, Schweich said. Patients would be required to have a recommendation from their doctor, and the initiative lays out a framework for licensing and regulating medical cannabis cultivators and dispensaries, including restrictions on the location of these businesses.
“Overall, it is a conservative approach to medical cannabis,” Schweich said.
If voters pass the initiative this fall, MPP would like to see state lawmakers implement the program without unnecessary delays and amendments, he added. “We certainly do not want to see the legislature gut the law, which would be an affront to voters. All that being said, we are not absolutists on making changes to the policy and we stand ready to work with legislators, regulators and other policymakers to assist them as they work to determine detailed rules and regulations.”
And if the initiative fails, Herbert has announced that he will urge lawmakers to pass a more widely supported medical marijuana legalization bill, although Schweich said there has been a strong push for legislative action for years now.
“Patients, caregivers, and advocates have met with legislators and visited the State Capitol countless times,” he said. “The legislature has failed to take action and instead maintained a policy that criminalizes the vast majority of patients. Therefore, I am not very confident that the legislature will take effective action for these patients in the event that the initiative fails.”
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