Southern Utah sheriff’s office shares anti-marijuana video, urges residents to vote ‘no’ on ballot initiative in possible election-law violation

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In recent weeks, a number of law enforcement agencies have shared an anti-marijuana video to their government Facebook pages in response to a ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in Utah. Those posts may violate election law, which prohibits government agencies from using public funds to influence ballot propositions, according to the Lt. Governor's Office.

The video opens on an image of Idaho pine trees and deep-blue mountains, followed by wholesome scenes of Friday night football, Saturday morning baseball, and bikers and kayakers enjoying a pristine natural landscape as instrumental music swells in the background.

It almost feels like a “Visit Idaho” commercial.

But suddenly, the scene changes. A coarse male voice says, “You guys like to smoke weed, right?” and the screen fills with smoke, images of marijuana leaves and of babies and old women smoking from bongs.

Over the past few weeks, a number of rural county sheriff’s offices and at least one city police department have shared a link to the hourlong anti-marijuana documentary from DrugFree Idaho on their government Facebook pages — posts that may violate election law.

“The law is pretty clear that [government entities] shouldn’t spend funds to try to influence ballot propositions or to encourage people to vote for or against specific candidates,” said Justin Lee, director of elections in the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office. “So we think government entities need to be very careful about how they’re using their resources.”

Violating the prohibition against neutrality is a criminal offense, Lee said, noting that his office, the attorney general’s office or a county attorney “would need to look into” specific instances.

Some of the agencies, like the Garfield County Sheriff's Office, marketed the video as “good information” but did not share an opposing perspective from the other side, which could have helped maintain an appearance of neutrality.

And the Beaver County Sheriff’s Office, which shared a link to the documentary on Sept. 10, made no pretense of balance, explicitly urging its followers to “Please Vote NO on prop 2.”

(Facebook screenshot) In a now deleted Facebook post from the Beaver County Sheriff's Office, the agency calls on residents to "Please Vote NO on prop 2."

Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel did not respond Wednesday afternoon to a request for comment on the post, but the agency’s Facebook post was deleted soon after The Salt Lake Tribune reached out for comment on the story.

Proposition 2 is a ballot initiative that, if passed in November, would allow qualifying patients with a doctor’s recommendation to obtain a medical marijuana card and purchase cannabis products from a dispensary. If no dispensary is located within 100 miles, the initiative allows for patients to grow up to six plants for personal use.

Proponents of the initiative say doctors and their patients should be free to pursue legitimate treatment options without fear of committing a criminal act. But critics, including Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, counter that while there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana, the initiative lacks the proper safeguards and controls to protect patients and the state’s youths.

The Utah Sheriffs' Association has officially signed on to the coalition opposing Prop 2.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said in May that she supported the initiative but later reversed course and joined the opponents. Her office has not used its official Facebook page to offer any opinions on the ballot initiative, but she said law enforcement officers across the state see “some real issues” with enforcement surrounding legalization.

“With the rural sheriffs, I’ve talked to all the sheriffs; we’re all on the same page,” she said. “In rural Utah, if you’re 100 miles away from a dispensary, you can grow your own. How do you monitor that?”

It’s possible those concerns, among others, prompted some of the law enforcement agencies to post a link to the anti-marijuana video on Facebook.

While most of their posts received relatively little attention, the Hurricane City Police Department’s, shared Tuesday, elicited more than 70 comments, with many residents expressing anger and frustration at what they saw as a government agency improperly attempting to sway their vote.

It appears the department first shared a link to both the video and to information from the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office that provides arguments for and against the ballot initiative. After a backlash, the department later updated its post, noting that the resources were “meant to be informational” and encouraging residents to “read the entire proposition” for themselves.

A spokesman from the Hurricane Police Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Danielle Crofts, a 45-year-old Hurricane resident, told The Tribune that she sees the agency’s post as a “gross abuse” of “partisan power.”

“It shows a clear conflict of interest of the office they are sworn to uphold,” Crofts said in a message. “This behavior is unethical, clearly unprofessional and irresponsible. It should be grounds for disciplinary review for those that approved such in conjunction with the agency they represent.”

Lee said those who spot a social media post from a government entity that they think may violate prohibitions against neutrality should contact their county attorney’s office.