Gehrke: Medical marijuana opponents are having a hard time getting their act together, but LDS Church involvement could be a game changer

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

With less than eight weeks before ballots are mailed out, opponents of Utah’s medical marijuana initiative still are struggling to get their feet under them, much less run a serious campaign against the measure.

So far, the Drug Safe Utah Coalition has grappled with anemic fundraising, messaging breakdowns (including a wildly off-base lawsuit) and elected officials who balked at throwing their support behind the opposition movement.

The latest setback, reported this week by my colleagues Taylor Anderson and Benjamin Wood, came when members of Utah’s congressional delegation and other elected officials were not interested in signing a statement opposing the initiative, coordinated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The statement read, in part, that the initiative “does not strike the appropriate balance in ensuring safe and reasonable access for patients while also protecting youth and preventing other societal harms.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch “was pretty adamant he was not going to sign” the statement being coordinated by church public affairs offices in Washington, D.C., and in Salt Lake City, sources familiar with the discussions told me on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Hatch resisted, I was told, out of respect for the initiative process and because he views it as a state issue.

County officials, congressional candidates like Ben McAdams and Senate candidate Mitt Romney were also approached, but response was lukewarm. They cast a wide net, one source said. “No rhyme or reason. … They just wanted a list of people.”

Likewise, Gov. Gary Herbert has been reluctant to throw his full weight behind the opposition movement. The governor was among the first to publicly express his reservations about the initiative, citing a string of concerns, including public health and safety fears, the potential for users to grow their own plants if no dispensaries are permitted and his fear that it could pose a first step toward recreational marijuana.

Recently, I was told, state departments, including the Department of Finance and the treasurer’s office, have voiced concerns to the governor about how purchases would be transacted, since banks are reluctant to deal with marijuana money for fear of losing their federal charter — creating the possibility of a quarter-billion-dollar cash-only business in the state.

But Herbert is not known for risking his political capital, and the polling on the issue is daunting. A recent poll showed two-thirds of Utahns support the measure and opponents have not found an effective message to dent that figure.

There’s another component to this: Herbert has a niece who suffers from seizures and could benefit from medical cannabis, and he has said he would support legislation that gets people help, provided it has the safeguards he believes are needed.

Whether or not the initiative passes, Herbert will have to play dealmaker, either revising the new law or crafting a different one — a difficult pivot if he goes all-in to defeat it.

Then there’s Walter Plumb. The leading financial backer of Drug Safe Utah has frustrated members of the coalition by going off-script, most notably last week when he filed a lawsuit arguing the initiative shouldn’t be allowed on the ballot because, if it passes, it violates Mormons’ religious right to not associate with pot users.

The lawsuit was unexpected, and the Utah Medical Association issued a statement stating (in bold print) that it “is not involved” in Plumb’s outlandish argument.

Within the governor’s office, as well, there were “strong reservations” about Plumb’s lawsuit that were expressed to the coalition, a source familiar with the discussions told me. “That lawsuit really threw everybody off message for a couple days.”

The coalition has also been struggling to raise the several million dollars it is expected to take to fund a successful anti-marijuana campaign. It has reported raising just $167,000, according to its latest filing, with Plumb personally bankrolling all but about $20,000. (It has almost certainly raised more, but has not reported any donations since mid-June; state law requires donations to be reported within 31 days.)

Wealthy developer Kem Gardner is reportedly being hit up to support the cause. Time is running out, though, to produce television ads and buy air time leading up to the election.

All of these problems, however, could turn around, starting Thursday. Opponents have scheduled a news conference aimed at highlighting various opposition voices and flaws in the ballot initiative. And the LDS Church is expected to weigh in more aggressively.

So if opponents stop flailing and get their act together, there is still time for them to stop the medical cannabis initiative — although that time could be running out.