Libertarian group that helped write Utah’s medical marijuana ballot initiative calls LDS Church’s analysis ‘a political attack piece’

FILE - This Sept. 15, 2015 file photo shows marijuana plants a few weeks away from harvest in a medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. A survey of U.S. cancer doctors released on Thursday, May 10, 2018, finds nearly half say they've recently recommended medical marijuana to patients, although most say they don't know enough about medicinal use. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

A group that helped write Utah’s medical marijuana ballot initiative has agreed with several recent critiques of the measure raised by the LDS Church, but it pushed back Monday in a 7,000-word, point-by-point rebuttal.

The response by the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute to an analysis released Friday by Kirton McConkie, a law firm for the Mormon church, continues a weeks-long tit-for-tat between backers and opponents of what may be Utah’s most high-profile and contentious ballot initiative.

And the exchanges via dueling legal studies come as the initiative nears being certified for November’s statewide ballot.

Yes, officials with the Libertas Institute wrote in their analysis, some people could “deceptively” get a medical marijuana card by telling their doctor they’re experiencing chronic pain when they aren’t, as noted in the Mormon church’s analysis.

“This will of course happen,” Libertas Institute wrote. “It does currently, with opiates.”

And yes, the Lehi-based group acknowledged, some patients could end up legally able to grow six of their own marijuana plants in some circumstances.

“This provision is unlikely to ever be triggered – that is, unless the government violates the law and does not allow dispensaries to be set up,” the group opined.

The initiative would allow patients to grow their own marijuana if no official dispensary is licensed within 100 miles of their home, a provision meant as a safeguard against the state not licensing any dispensaries statewide.

Opponents of the medical marijuana initiative are in the final days of a campaign to get enough supporters to change their minds and remove their signatures from the ballot petition, as they seek to prevent it from reaching a public vote.

Proponents are hoping to block that signature-removal effort, which will continue until Wednesday. Residents who signed have until Tuesday to remove their signatures, and state officials will certify the initiatives by June 1.

“We welcome reasonable, good faith discussion on the merits of the initiative but find little substance in this analysis,” Libertas wrote of the document released by the law firm for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Libertas said the church document’s “odd timing mere days before a deadline to remove signatures from the petition suggests that this is not so much a legal analysis as it is a political hit piece commissioned with the intent to paint only a one-sided picture of the issue.”

Utah’s predominant religion is opposing the measure. Along with its analysis released via Kirton McConkie, the faith’s leaders said in a statement the study “raises grave concerns about this initiative and the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted.”

A spokeswoman for the LDS Church declined to comment Monday.

DJ Schanz, campaign director for the pro-initiative Utah Patients Coalition who is also the Libertas vice president, applauded the latest statement.

“The Libertas Institute has done a magnificent job of giving a point by point rebuttal of Kirton McConkie’s slanted and biased analysis of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act,” Schanz said, adding the 17-page analysis would help voters better understand the measure.

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)

The Libertas Institute helped write the pro-medical marijuana SB73 in 2016 that passed the Utah Senate but was blocked by the House. The initiative, Libertas wrote, is almost identical to legislation already considered on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

Its rebuttal also reveals a key campaign strategy that proponents may well use in advocating for the initiative’s passage: refer early and often to the state’s ongoing opioid crisis. Libertas mentions opiates and the opioid crisis 11 times in its statement, and the campaign comes as several Utah counties – along with other states and counties across the U.S. – moving to sue pharmaceutical companies for their role in fueling opioid addiction and high overdose rates.

“Two dozen Utahns are dying a month from these FDA-approved drugs,” Libertas wrote.

“At least if they try the medication they won’t get addicted or die – unlike the numerous pharmaceutical drugs [the Mormon church] evidently has no objection to doctors offering their patients,” Libertas wrote.

The group said the initiative’s passing would result in fewer people seeking out marijuana on the black market, instead getting it from about 15 regulated dispensaries subject to inspection by regulators without a warrant.

Like ballot initiative measures in other states, initiatives in Utah can be amended or even repealed by lawmakers, although they face a deterrent from political pressure to not undo voters’ will.

Libertas, which is a prominent lobbying force on Capitol Hill, said also it would provide political cover for legislators who propose bills if there’s agreement on changes to the initiative.

Proponents of medical marijuana last week threatened a lawsuit against the opposition campaign for “fraudulent” and deceptive practices to convince people to withdraw their support at a crucial time in the campaign.

That followed a formal complaint filed by opponents alleging someone with the medical marijuana campaign offered money for lists of people who signed a form to remove their signatures.

That complaint is set to be reviewed by the Utah Attorney General.