When taking a look at the path to marijuana legalization in the United States, it would be difficult not to compare Utah’s battle for a comprehensive medical marijuana program to a knockdown brawl in some seedy roadside tavern where, in the end, someone ends up getting cut and disposed of miles out of town. Indeed, it has been a rough, mostly one-sided fight, one in which the state’s legislative forces have remained the undisputed victors for years on end.
But this year, cannabis advocates rallied together to forge an alternative route to legalization, clearing the way for this reform through a ballot initiative named Proposition 2. And the voters seemed to support it. One of the latest polls shows 77 percent of the voters would likely cast a ballot in favor of a system that allows patients to use cannabis for therapeutic purposes. This possibility made the state’s influential powers somewhat nervous, especially the Mormon church and the same Republican forces that have rallied against the issue in the past.
The threat of finally losing the battle (and big time) inspired lawmakers to take the matter into their own hands.
Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert announced a “compromise” to the proposed medical marijuana program outlined under Proposition 2 that would guarantee a therapeutic use law regardless of how the voters decided in the November election. The deal, which was struck just weeks before the voters head to the polls, was accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the primary opposition to the language of the initiative, as well as the cannabis advocates responsible for pushing ballot measure. The idea is: win or lose, all interested parties walk away with a victory.
“Today we have a group of people who’ve come together to help create a better policy than exists in Proposition 2, which will provide for us to have access to safe cannabis-based treatments and really a framework for true medical marijuana use,” Herbert said in a press conference.
But the compromise could be a scam, a ruse or a way out.
Before Hebert’s announcement, some reports suggested that the Utah Senate was meeting to discuss how to defeat Proposition 2.
“Look, this is easy. A handful of powerbrokers schemed up something in private, and want to act like it is something more than that so that they can confuse voters,” one unnamed Senator told the Utah Bee. “That’s all this is.”
The guts of the compromised deal indicate that if the voters come out in support of medical marijuana next month, Herbert will call together a special session intended to implement the negotiated program. How does it look? Well, it’s not bad by design. It does create a unique variety of medical marijuana program that puts the industry in the hands of the state government. Essentially, a handful of privately owned companies and the state health department would take care of distribution. Doctors and licensed pharmacists would oversee all medical marijuana recommendations. No home cultivation. Some pot products would be banned — you know the story.
But here’s the kicker: If voters fail to push the initiative through, lawmakers will have the authority to start hashing out another version of the program that may or may not be comparable to the medical marijuana law bargained for in secret, behind closed doors. In theory, especially since this compromise deal is not bound by law, the state legislature could spin the issue indefinitely.
There are no guarantees that lawmakers will come together if given the opportunity. Even Herbert admits that a fail at the ballot box means that medical marijuana is “going to arrive at some point.” But just how soon, or whether a bill will find its way to a passage at all, is the question.
After all, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of the government’s intention here. This is not the first time the legislature and the church have been part of a deal to prevent the voice of the public from being heard. A report from the Salt Lake Tribute shows this happened with an anti-discrimination bill back in 2015.
But the Mormons are happy, and when it comes to Utah politics sometimes, that’s all that matters. Elder Jack Gerard, who believes the compromise was the best way for the church to get behind medical marijuana, says that the church will continue to oppose Proposition 2, but it will back off its slaughter campaign to some degree.
“We believe it creates a framework that is good for patients, their caregivers, is good for children, and in our mind, that’s good for Utah,” Gerard said.
We shall see.
Some marijuana advocates believe the only way to ensure medical marijuana makes it to Utah in the near future is for the voters to show their support next month at the polls. Otherwise, lawmakers will have free reign.
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