Medical marijuana negotiations continue, and a deal could be announced as soon as today

The Utah Patients Coalition continues to advocate for passage of Proposition 2 in November, while the Drug Safe Utah coalition maintains its opposition to the ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.

That status quo remains in effect heading into the final weeks of the election season — despite ongoing negotiations between the various parties on potential legislative adjustments that could be made to Proposition 2 after the balloting.

“Nothing, as of yesterday, was finalized,” House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Wednesday. “There are ongoing discussions.”

Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association and president of Drug Safe Utah, told the Deseret News on Tuesday that she was involved in reaching a compromise on Proposition 2, which she described as “a Utah solution.” But, on Wednesday, after the status of a compromise was questioned in various media reports, McOmber declined to provide comment to The Salt Lake Tribune.

In a prepared statement, Drug Safe Utah spokeswoman Jennifer Scott hinted at forthcoming details of a compromise, which could be announced as early as Thursday. “We respect the hard work and the sensitivity that has gone into the negotiation process,” Scott said. “We will provide a more specific response after the terms of the negotiation are released.”

The Tribune obtained a draft bill last week that was initiated by Drug Safe Utah, a coalition of Prop 2 opponents that includes several high-profile Utahns and the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The draft targeted several of the more controversial aspects of the initiative language, including a so-called “grow-your-own” provision that would allow qualifying patients to cultivate cannabis plants for personal use if a dispensary was not located within 100 miles.

That provision was intended as an “insurance policy,” according to initiative backers, in the event that opponents of medical marijuana in the state government delayed implementation of the law.

Critics of Proposition 2 have also chafed at the initiative’s use of private cannabis dispensaries in lieu of strictly controlled pharmacies and an “affirmative defense” provision that would empower patients to avoid prosecution for marijuana possession in the period between the November election but before licensed dispensaries are operational.

Sources with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations say the parties are nearing a consensus on eliminating the grow-your-own and affirmative defense language, and establishing a state-controlled and centralized operation for fulfilling cannabis prescriptions.

But those changes would be made after the election, either as an amendment to Prop 2 if the initiative is successful, or as part of medical marijuana legislation initiated by lawmakers if the initiative fails. And it is not yet clear whether any compromise would be taken up in a special session before year’s end — as requested by the LDS Church — or during the 2019 general legislative session, which convenes in January.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who sponsored previous medical marijuana legislation and is expected to sponsor or be involved with future bills on the issue, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

On Wednesday evening, initiative opponents — including Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem — and members of the pro-legalization advocacy organization TRUCE debated Proposition at a forum in Salt Lake City. The event, held at the downtown public library, was moderated by Fox 13 anchor Bob Evans.

TRUCE president Christine Stenquist said her organization was not included in the negotiations with initiative opponents, and that she lacks confidence in the state Legislature to take action on the issue after years of stalled attempts.

“We’re not part of the conversation,” she said. “We’re not part of the compromise.”

Lawmakers “dangle this carrot in front of you,” Stenquist said, while continuing to ignore the needs and wishes of their constituents.

“There’s a litany of substantiating evidence that no, we should not be trusting our elected officials,” she said. “And it breaks my heart to say that.”

Daw said he understands the lack of trust. But he added that the progress the state has made on cannabis legislation — like legalizing the cannabis derivative cannabidiol and establishing a right for terminally ill patients to try medical marijuana — would be undone by Proposition 2, resulting in a longer delay for patients than what could be achieved legislatively.

“If you want the shortest path to having medical cannabis,” Daw said, “vote down the initiative and work with the legislature.”

Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.