Utah voters will decide this fall whether to legalize medical marijuana.
But voters won’t get the chance to decide the fate of an initiative aimed at ensuring that candidates will continue to have a dual path to the primary ballot by either collecting signatures or using the caucus-convention system.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s top election official, announced the decisions Tuesday after final counts by his office of petition signatures — plus thousands of late forms from some signers asking that their names be removed.
Planned and current lawsuits still raise questions about whether those two initiatives will appear on the ballot. “It’s far from the end. It’s only the end of the beginning,” said Rich McKeown, executive cochairman of Count My Vote, the election law initiative, vowing quick legal action to challenge the decision.
Two other initiatives, which did not face signature-removal battles, will also appear on the ballot: one to expand Medicaid to 150,000 low-income Utahns, and another to allow an independent commission to redraw political boundaries.
Organizers of the medical marijuana legalization proposal hailed the announcement.
“We’re ecstatic that Utah voters will have a voice in this matter,” said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition that pushed the initiative.
A group called Drug Safe Utah — a coalition of the Utah Medical Association, the conservative Eagle Forum and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force — had led an effort to persuade petition signers to remove their names. It also filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the initiative by contending it breaks federal laws that ban marijuana.
“We’re ecstatic that our opponents’ efforts to thwart the democratic process failed and we’re looking forward to having a robust and hefty debate in the coming months, and hopefully have voters side with us that there is indeed a place for medical cannabis and we should stop criminalizing these patients,” Schanz said.
Data from Cox’s office show that the medical marijuana initiative collected 153,894 valid signatures statewide in 27 of 29 state Senate districts. Initiatives must collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the vote in the last presidential election (about 113,000 statewide) and also meet that 10 percent mark in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.
The pro-legalization drive prevailed even though opponents managed to persuade 1,425 people who had signed the petition initially to submit valid forms asking to remove their names.
The battle seeking to remove signatures from petitions was nasty. Each side accused the other of misleading voters. Opponents of the medical marijuana petition filed complaints with Cox alleging they were offered money not to submit rescission letters. Proponents of the petition accused the other side of misleading voters about what they were signing.
“We are pleased to learn that our opposition’s shady tactics to remove signatures and mislead the public … were unsuccessful,” said another supporter of the initiative, Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute. “It’s time for Utah voters to take the issue into their own hands.”
Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, said that while efforts to remove names was unsuccessful, they “generated enough interest in the topic that people are now paying attention to the real issue … about how it opens the door to recreational use of marijuana.”
She said, “Where real science shows that cannabis-based medicines are the best answer, UMA will not stand in the way. But except in limited circumstances, that is not now the case. And this ballot does nothing to advance the standards of safety or efficacy for any patient.”
The medical marijuana initiative still faces a tough road ahead, including the lawsuit contending it violates federal law. Also The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been critical of it, as have such politicians as Gov. Gary Herbert.
Meanwhile, the Count My Vote initiative had initially collected enough votes to qualify for the ballot, but an opposition group called Keep My Voice managed to persuade 2,951 people to remove their names.
With that, the initiative had sufficient signatures in only 23 of the required 26 state Senate districts — even though it collected 131,984 verified signatures statewide. McKeown said Count My Vote plans a quick appeal of those results directly to the Utah Supreme Court, as allowed by law.
He contends that county clerks disqualified many signatures inappropriately, and his group “has concerns” about the validity and forms used by opposition groups to remove signatures from petitions.
“We’ve been preparing for this” legal challenge, McKeown said. “We feel many people’s signatures were improperly invalidated, and we are moving forward aggressively” to challenge that in court.
“A tiny sliver of people are trying to take away the ability of Utahns to vote on this,” he complained. “We’re not going to disenfranchise the vast majority of people who wanted this to be on the ballot.”
Brandon Beckham, director of the opposition Keep My Voice, says his volunteers and paid canvassers found that “about 70 percent” of the signers they contacted told them they did not know they had signed the initiative.
“Some of them were told they were signing a petition to help Mitt Romney get on the ballot,” he said. “Others said canvassers talked about the medical marijuana initiative because it was very popular. After people signed it, canvassers asked quickly if they would sign another to improve election laws. But people didn’t know what they were signing.”
Beckham said Keep My Voice will continue to push a lawsuit it filed against Cox last week contending his office violated state law by not investigating potential fraud by Count My Vote. He contends many more rescission letters should have been validated, and said his group may push legal action if necessary on that point.
“It’s far from over,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Medicaid expansion initiative qualified for the ballot with 147,280 signatures validated in 26 of 29 state Senate districts. The independent redistricting commission initiative qualified with 150,082, also in 26 of 29 districts.
“This was a critical milestone to ensure 150,000 Utahns will gain access to health care coverage,” said RyLee Curtis, campaign manager for Utah Decides Healthcare. “We are working hard to win in November and to make sure our friends and neighbors have health-care coverage when they need it.”
Correction: Connor Boyack is the president of the Libertas Institute. RyLee Curtis is the campaign manager for Utah Decides Healthcare. Their name spellings have been corrected in this updated version.