Lawmakers reject comprehensive medical marijuana plan

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, speaks during a committee hearing on Monday, March 7, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Utah Representatives on Monday rejected a plan to legalize the use of edible marijuana products by those with chronic conditions.

A ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana will not be an option for Utah voters this year, or next. 

After neither medical marijuana bill even managed to make it to the House floor, many were expecting the promised initiative to be on the ballot for voters this coming November.

But the initiative, which will look similar to the failed Senate Bill 73, sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, had to be pushed back to 2018. 

In the aftermath of the legislative session, even many marijuana patients and advocates were confused about why the bills were killed, and what the next steps are for those who want to legalize the drug for medical purposes.

Medical marijuana patients gathered on Saturday to get answers from representatives from Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) and Libertas Institute about what the next steps are in the fight to legalize medical marijuana.  

Many of the approximately 50 attendees were concerned with why the ballot initiative is no longer on the table for this year.

Throughout the legislative session, advocates often promised to legalize medical cannabis by getting an initiative on the ballot if the legislature did not pass SB 73, the more comprehensive of the two medical marijuana bills.

But it soon became apparent that the ballot initiative was not going to happen this year.

Many different obstacles, from the daunting $2.5 million that needed to be raised in a short time frame, to a short timeline in which to gather more than 100,000 signatures by April 15, kept the ballot initiative from becoming a reality as quickly as many advocates had hoped.

And trying to rush things wasn't worth it to those who care about the issue.

“If we were to file in 2016 and fail, we would not be able to bring this back to a ballot initiative until 2020,” said Abigail Wright, vice president of TRUCE. “And we did not feel that that was a risk we wanted to take.”

Because statewide initiatives are only put on the ballot on even-numbered years, the initiative timeline was pushed back to 2018. If passed in the 2018 election, it would be around 2020 before any policy was actually implemented.

Many patients were upset to see that timeline pushed back.

“What would you say we can do right now, as baby steps?” one audience member asked. “I want this thing on the ballot tomorrow and I’m hearing that’s not realistic. And I’m not really happy with that answer.”

But Wright said there is still a lot that can be done by patients now.

“We still need to start gathering signatures immediately,” Wright said. “This spring and summer. We can use your help.”

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, who sponsored SB 73, also told the group to use their immediate connections to start changing the perception of marijuana by many in the state.

“So there’s no reason you have to wait a single day. Your family, your friends, begin to engage them,” Madsen said.

Because an initiative would take several years to implement fully, the advocates’ plan is to continue working on getting legislation passed in the 2017 session.

Continuing to work on the initiative as well gives them not only a backup plan, but leverage in the legislature. A repeal-clause will likely be included in the initiative language, meaning that should it pass in 2018, it would override any existing laws on the subject.

So if legislation the group considered unfavorable were to pass, it would later be repealed if voters pass the initiative.

Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, said that will act as a deterrent for legislators to sponsor less-inclusive medical marijuana bills.

“Why are you going to waste the legislature’s time, why are you going to waste taxpayer dollars, to start up this regulatory program that very likely could be swept away and repealed when voters vote on this in 2018?” Boyack said.

Though Madsen is retiring from the Senate after this year and moving out of the country, he said he would use the time until he leaves to continue working toward medical marijuana legalization.

“I’ll be doing everything I can and use whatever notoriety that I have to continue to try to educate people, educate my colleagues and push for this issue,” Madsen said.

Madsen’s retirement leaves many of the details to still be worked out, such as who would sponsor such legislation.

However, the attention the issue has received has at least grabbed the attention of several potential friends in the legislature.

Several different people attending the meeting are currently running for a state legislature seat. Their political affiliation ranged from Democrat, to Republican, to Libertarian.

Nikki Cunard, who is running as a Democrat for House District 45, said that as someone with several family members who suffer from PTSD, this is a personal issue for her.

“I think there are many issues,” Cunard said. “This is just one of many issues that we need to address, and we need to put politics aside and do what’s best for the people and the well-being of the state of Utah.”

Republican R. Glenn Stoneman, who is running for House District 70, said that, though he himself does not use cannabis, he began supporting it because it presented a safer alternative to opioids.

Wright said the group plans to file the initiative within the next couple of months. 

Katie England covers politics, county government and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

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