Meet the man spending $100,000 to defeat Utah’s medical marijuana initiative

He once funded and co-wrote a booklet on marijuana after he saw a possible connection between low junior high graduation rates in Utah and the illicit plant. He ran a law firm with his friend U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch. He owns a pharmaceutical company that sells nutritional supplements and products marketed to women.

Meet Walter J. Plumb III, the real estate developer and philanthropist who has contributed more than $100,000 to the campaign hoping to block the medical marijuana initiative before it can reach voters on November’s ballot.

Plumb is the first of what may be other big-dollar donors to the opposition campaign of Utah’s most contentious ballot measure. He’s also a plaintiff in the lawsuit that seeks to block the state from approving the measure for the ballot. A decision is expected on that next week.

Plumb said he’s funding the opponents’ campaign, which is led by the Utah Medical Association, because he believes voters don’t understand the breadth and potential impact of the initiative.

“What [the campaign proponents] want is recreational marijuana,” Plumb told The Salt Lake Tribune during a phone interview Friday. “The right to get high.

“The forgotten group in this whole thing is kids,” Plumb added. “Junior high kids and high school kids.”

Plumb made headlines in the late 1990s when he delivered thousands of booklets about his views on marijuana use to parents along the Wasatch Front. The booklet, according to a Deseret News article at the time, was criticized for including incorrect information, which Plumb dismissed. The booklet also included a glossary of slang terms, including some that were “exclusive to blacks or Hispanics,” the newspaper wrote.

“When you’re a lay person, it’s hard to make every [word] gender-neutral and politically correct. I wasn’t interested in doing that — I wanted to tell it like I’ve seen it,” Plumb told the paper.

This time around, he personally went door to door with the goal of persuading voters who signed the petition to change their minds and fill out forms to remove their signatures. Next week, the state election office will decide if the initiative’s opponents were successful in getting enough signatures removed to prevent the petition from appearing on the fall ballot.

“After 200 years of statehood, suddenly we need medical dispensaries for this magical drug that’s going to solve every problem according to these people that are selling it?” Plumb said.

His donation appeared Friday on the state website where campaigns report their fundraising and spending. It includes money spent or received within 30 days. He said he added another $10,000 or $15,000 since then, and that more may follow depending on the outcome of the lawsuit. The Utah Medical Association also gave $500, the records show.

DJ Schanz, director of the proponents’ campaign, called the Utah Patients Coalition, said in a statement he’s sure Plumb is a “nice person,” but that he is wrong about the initiative.

“These people are patients that deserve our support and assistance,” Schanz said, “not making them outcasts and criminals.”

Proponents are attempting to legalize the sale, possession and use of marijuana products by people who obtain cards after consulting a doctor. The Utah Legislature actually legalized medical marijuana in this year’s session, while proponents were collecting signatures to reach the ballot. The new law allows possession and use by people who are expected to die within six months.

The campaign’s petition would apply to much wider groups of patients, including people with chronic pain if a doctor believes they could be at risk of addiction or overdose from opiate medications. Other qualifying conditions would include HIV, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism.

The measure would also establish private dispensaries and growers, which is another contrast to the new Utah law that will allow a state-contracted grower to produce marijuana sold at a state-run dispensary.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who personally is against the ballot measure, nonetheless indirectly criticized opposition campaign forces Thursday, calling on them to allow the initiative to reach the ballot so the public can debate it and vote.

Opponents are suing Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah’s chief election officer, in an attempt to block the measure. The case has been moved to a federal court and will likely be heard next week before the state’s Friday deadline for certifying measures for the ballot.

This week, Herbert called for changes to the petition process to make it more difficult for opponents to block a ballot measure if a campaign turns in the required number of signatures, which this year was 113,000 statewide with a portion coming from 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.

“It becomes unfair when people go out and get 113,000-plus signatures … sometimes 150,000 or 200,000 signatures, and yet can have that ability to put it on the ballot, have it debated and voted up or down by the people thwarted by a few hundred people who just say in this particular county, ‘We’re going to overturn it therefore you don’t comply with the 26 out of 29,’” Herbert said.

“Let’s have the debate,” he said. “Why are we afraid?”

Plumb called for much different changes to the process. He said that voters who may want to remove their signatures might not be willing to give up personal information that’s required to do so. He said removing signatures from a petition should be as easy as signing one, and he suggested there may be another lawsuit coming from opponents.

“We’re going to challenge that whole ordinance of being a violation of the 14th Amendment,” he said, referring to the part of the Constitution that offers citizens due process and equal protection.