Hired canvassers seek to persuade voters to take their name off Utah’s medical marijuana ballot initiative

FILE - In this June 26, 2017, file photo, Davis Cromar, center, holds his son Holden, 10, who suffers from epilepsy, while standing with other patients, caregivers and supporters during the Utah Patients Coalition news conference, in Salt Lake City. Voters in the deep red states of Utah and Oklahoma will have a chance to legalize medical marijuana through ballot initiatives that offer the latest illustration of how quickly the United States is leaving behind taboos about the drug. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A broad coalition of Utah organizations representing doctors, conservative activists and narcotics officers has hired a pool of well-paid canvassers to speak with voters who signed a medical marijuana ballot initiative — suggesting they’ve been misled and urging them to remove their names before the May 15 deadline.

“This is legal,” said Mark Fotheringham, spokesman for the Utah Medical Association, the lead group pushing to upend the petition. “It’s totally aboveboard. We’re not trying to hide anything.”

The initiative has already qualified, at least tentatively, for the Nov. 6 ballot, collecting more than 40,000 signatures above the required threshold and in 27 of the state’s 29 Senate districts (when it needed just 26). But Drug Safe Utah intends to target signers in the counties where it collected the lowest margins so it no longer meets the geographic requirements.

It’s likely a long-shot effort.

In Senate District 29, for instance, the petition has 408 signatures above what it needs. That’s its thinnest cushion. To be successful, Drug Safe Utah would need to convince 409 voters to remove their names. And they’d still have two more districts to overturn, too.

Nevertheless, the anti-initiative group is going to try. Two days ago, it posted an ad on the job website Indeed looking for canvassers in St. George — the biggest city in Senate District 29 — to “help [in] spreading the word about what the bill actually means for our communities and Utah as a whole.” The pay is $25 per hour. The opposition’s organizers are also enlisting volunteers.

“We wouldn’t be as worried if they weren’t using such deceptive tactics,” said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, which supports the petition that would legalize medical marijuana for those with qualifying illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

This is not the only effort to bump an initiative from the ballot.

Opponents are spending big money, as well, to stymie the Count My Vote petition, which seeks to cement the dual path to the primary ballot where candidates can go through the caucus-convention system and/or collect signatures. Keep My Voice, which prefers only the caucus-convention route, is challenging that with $174,000, so far.

It’s unclear how much Drug Safe Utah has spent. The group filed its statement of organization on April 27 and has 30 days before it must submit any financial accounts to the state. The documents, though, show that the coalition partners include the Utah Eagle Forum — a conservative group — and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force. Fotheringham said the Sutherland Institute is also involved.

The organizations believe the medical marijuana initiative, if passed, might open the door to later recreational use.

“There’s just too many loopholes in this thing,” Fotheringham said. “The ballot initiative is just a terrible way to decide what is good medicine. It has nothing to do with science. It’s just people’s feelings.”

Utah voters, however, have overwhelmingly supported the proposal. About 3 in 4 respondents polled by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics in January said they would back legalizing medical marijuana.

Under the initiative, smoking the drug and using it in public would be banned. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though 29 states allow it for medical use and eight for recreational use.

“We feel this is best left in the public square to be debated on,” Schanz said Thursday.

That’s similar to what Gov. Gary Herbert said last week when he heard of the early efforts to get signers off the petitions. “Let’s have the vote. Let’s have the debate,” he said. “I think it’s good to have the people’s voice heard.”

Though he has staunchly opposed the medical marijuana petition — saying it would “do more harm than good” — his position on letting voters decide has not changed, according to his office.

“His concern is about the potential for manipulation of the ballot initiative process, not the particular initiative at stake,” said his spokesman Paul Edwards. “Ballot initiatives provide another way for the voice of the people to be heard. We may not always agree with the substance of an initiative, but we need not fear the process.”

By law, a petition signer has until May 15 — 30 days after the initiative signatures were due — to ask that his or her name be removed. That is also the deadline for county clerks to finish verifying names and to check if enough have rescinded their support to knock a measure off of the ballot.

It’s unclear how many people have pulled their signature. And it’s possible the Mormon church could have some sway.

The dominant Utah faith praised the Utah Medical Association’s stance against the initiative without directly opposing the petition itself.

For his part, Herbert said Utah lawmakers had the right idea when they passed HB195 and HB197, which he signed this session. One will allow physicians to recommend marijuana as a pain reliever for people who have an estimated six months or less left to live. The other authorizes the state to contract with a grower and to control dispensing of marijuana under rules the Department of Agriculture and Food has begun drafting.

The ballot initiative would grant access to far more patients. It would also allow for private growing and dispensing, similar to the other states that allow the plant for medicinal use.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, believes “the list goes on and on about the things to be concerned about” in the petition. When she’s gone out to talk to voters about removing their names, she said, many haven’t read it.

“They don’t know what’s in it,” Ruzicka said. “People need to know what they’re signing and what they’re voting for.”

Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), a group working to educate Utah voters on medical marijuana, responded to the signature-repeal efforts Thursday with testimony from a signer who Drug Safe Utah tried to persuade. Executive Director Christine Stenquist added that it’s “not surprising to hear.”

“As a patient and a patient advocate, I am frustrated to see the Utah Medical Association and the Eagle Forum interfere with citizens invoking our constitutional rights to create legislation that meets our needs.”