Group opposing Utah’s medical marijuana initiative finds another hundred-thousand-dollar-man in Kem Gardner

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Candi Huff confronts Kem Gardner after a news conference where a coalition including the LDS Church came out against Utah's medical marijuana initiative, in Salt Lake City on Thursday Aug. 23, 2018.

Utah developer and philanthropist Kem Gardner is putting his money where his mouth is, cutting a $100,000 check to help defeat the state’s medical marijuana initiative.

Initiative opponents say the donation and other recent contributions to the campaign mark an escalation in the efforts to stop Utah’s Proposition 2.

“I support medical marijuana if it is dispensed from state licensed and state operated dispensaries," Gardner wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “I am opposed to privately operated pot shops selling gummy (sic) bears and brownies.”

Disclosure forms filed with the state by Drug Safe Utah — a coalition opposed to Utah’s Proposition 2 — include Gardner’s donation on Aug. 13, making him and developer Walter J. Plumb III the principal financiers of the anti-initiative effort to date.

Gardner participated in a news conference last month marking a significant expansion of the Drug Safe Utah coalition that included several Utah state and federal officeholders, the Utah Sheriffs' Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The coalition prefers a legislative solution on the issue of medical marijuana, saying Proposition 2 lacks appropriate medical controls and opens the door to legal recreational use of cannabis in the state.

LDS Church leaders have called for a special legislative session before the end of the year to enact marijuana legislation, and coalition leaders have met with lawmakers to discuss draft legislation that would rely on county health departments to distribute cannabis products to qualifying patients.

Gardner said he supports those efforts, which is why he has donated and raised money to defeat Proposition 2.

“I do support and encourage the Legislature holding a special session to set up state-run dispensaries in each county,” he wrote, “to provide medical marijuana with safeguards if it will help alleviate pain and suffering.”

Plumb, who had already donated more than $100,000 to the Drug Safe coalition, has increased his financial backing of the anti-initiative efforts. Disclosure forms show that Colony Partners, which Plumb manages, contributed $100,000 to Drug Safe Utah on Aug. 21, and there’s a July donation of $10,000 in Plumb’s name.

In August, Drug Safe Utah also received $10,000 from Michael Swenson, and $10,000 from Brent and Bonnie Beesley. Brent Beesly is chairman and CEO of Bonneville Inc., while Bonnie Beesley is president of the Beesley Family Foundation and recently served as chairwoman of the state’s Board of Regents.

Plumb said Friday that he’s willing to do “what it takes” to defeat the initiative, adding that an influx of new funding would correlate in an acceleration of the coalition’s opposition effort.

Photo courtesy of Walter J. Plumb III

“These new few weeks are going to be all different,” Plumb said. “We’re going all out right now.”

Plumb is also backing a lawsuit against the state challenging the initiative’s placement on the November ballot. The suit originally asserted that legalizing medical marijuana would violate Latter-day Saint religious beliefs but was later amended to emphasize the rights of landlords to deny occupancy to prospective tenants who use marijuana.

Plumb said he is not involved in the negotiations with lawmakers on compromise legislation. He added that such negotiations are unnecessary, as he is confident Drug Safe Utah will succeed in its efforts to defeat Proposition 2 in November.

“We’re going to win,” he said. “People are going to wake up that they’re being duped.”

DJ Schanz, director of the initiative-backing Utah Patients Coalition, said it takes a lot of money to run a campaign based on “half-truths and lies.”

“We don’t doubt that they are going to be able to raise it,” he said.

Schanze declined to comment on the state of negotiations with lawmakers and initiative opponents, beyond confirming that he has been involved in talks over the past year on potential points of compromise. He said he’s confident voters will approve Proposition 2 in November, at which point the Legislature will have power to amend and adjust the new law.

“Our real concern isn’t just winning this in November,” Schanz said. “But are we going to be able to maintain a viable medical cannabis program when this passes and the Legislature has their say with it?”