Utah League of Cities and Towns leaders fear losing local zoning and police powers if medical pot is legalized

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) K-9 officer UHP Sgt. Randy Riches and drug-sniffing dog Terro do a training exercise Monday, Dec. 18, 2017.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns stopped just short of formally opposing November’s Proposition 2 on Tuesday after a lengthy discussion on the public effects and potential risks of legalizing medical marijuana in the state.

Marijuana does have medicinal benefits, a resolution approved by the league’s board of directors states, but a ballot initiative on the topic would preempt and infringe on the ability of cities to oversee land use, business licensing, law enforcement and zoning.

“Cities and towns oppose any action to preempt traditional local authority to enact ordinances that are vital to the public safety, health, and welfare of our communities.”

Proposition 2 includes language that prohibits cities from specifically discriminating against cannabis dispensaries. DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, said the provisions mirror the state’s approach to liquor stores and tobacco shops and that city and county leaders retain authority over broad zoning categories and designations.

“There might be 10 functioning cannabis dispensaries in the whole state, in industrial areas with no advertising,” Schanz said. “We wanted to make sure that when the public votes on this, their will is enacted — that we do have dispensaries and that cities and counties aren’t circumventing the will of the people.”

The board of directors voted unanimously for the resolution, which now will go to a vote by league members.

While the resolution does not encourage voters to reject Proposition 2 — which allows qualifying patients with a doctor’s recommendation to obtain a medical marijuana card and purchase cannabis products — the board’s discussion suggested a broader opposition to the initiative itself.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike said it was important for the board to state its concerns before Utah lawmakers consider a “true” medical marijuana program. And North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave expressed skepticism that Proposition 2 would effectively limit cannabis use to legitimate medical needs.

“Basically what we’re talking about is if this passes,” Arave said, “it’s basically the legalization of marijuana.”

Arave’s comment followed a presentation to the board of directors by Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, who is also president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

Ross described Proposition 2 as “loosely written,” suggesting passage of the initiative would blur the line between legal and illegal use of cannabis.

“It opens the door to the use of marijuana by anyone in any form for any reason,” Ross said. “Passing Proposition 2, whether intended or not, will bring recreational use of marijuana into the state of Utah.”

He gave the example of someone using marijuana on the street outside a restaurant. Under Proposition 2, a law enforcement officer would lack probable cause to question that person, he said, and at most the penalty for a violation would be a civil infraction and $100 fine.

“From an enforcement perspective,” Ross said, “Proposition 2 makes it very difficult for us to do anything to prevent it from being illegally used.”

Ross was also asked by league board members about the impact of medical marijuana legalization on K-9 units, or police dogs. Because the animals are trained to locate and respond to a number of illegal substances, including cannabis, Ross said it’s unclear whether they could be retrained or would be rendered inoperative by Proposition 2.

“You can’t remove the ability for a dog that’s been trained to sniff out marijuana,” Ross said. “Those questions are being asked and they’re still not clearly answered.”

Schanz said marijuana’s benefits for patients outweigh the impact on trained police animals.

“Unfortunately, our concern isn’t about K-9s, but about kids with epilepsy,” Schanz said. “And the K-9s in 30 other medical marijuana states are doing just fine.”

Asked about Ross’ example of a marijuana user outside a restaurant, Schanz said all current laws continue to apply to individuals who use cannabis without a medical marijuana card. And for patients who do qualify, he said, Proposition 2 prohibits smoking marijuana or using cannabis in any form in public.

“This hypothetical isn’t a hypothetical,” Schanz said. “It’s fictitious.”

Schanz said the objections of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association and the Utah League of Cities and Towns are based in the current attitude toward marijuana. If Proposition 2 passes, he said, medical cannabis will no longer be “verboten” and can be dealt with similarly to other prescription drugs.

“In no way are we strongarming city or county leaders,” Schanz said. “We just think that it’s important that these dispensaries or different cannabis-based businesses are not unduly discriminated against for the mere fact that they are just a cannabis-based business.”

On Tuesday, the Utah League of Cities and Towns also voted unanimously for a resolution supporting legislative action to increase the state’s gas tax. Voters will consider a nonbinding question on that subject in November in addition to medical marijuana.

The league’s actions come one week after the Salt Lake County Board of Health voted to endorse Utah’s Proposition 3 — an initiative to fully expand Medicaid in the state — but remain neutral on Proposition 2, according to a report by FOX 13.

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