The long, hard-fought battle over Utah’s medical marijuana initiative, known as Proposition 2, took a huge left turn Thursday, with supporters and opponents standing side by side at the state Capitol to announce a consensus bill expected to be enacted during a November special session.
“This is a pretty amazing day,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. “It is a miracle we’re all united as a group.”
The deal, which arrived after weeks of rumored, backdoor negotiations, makes it more likely than ever that Utah will soon have a legal process for patients to access medical cannabis. But it also left many questions unanswered and upended the battleground surrounding Prop 2 in the final weeks of the 2018 election cycle.
With Utahns now considering a new post-November marijuana landscape, here’s what this week’s announcement meant for the primary figures in the debate.
Winner: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
In August, the state’s predominant faith made news by formally joining the Drug Safe Utah coalition and opposing Prop 2. Elder Jack N. Gerard, an LDS general authority Seventy, elaborated that the Utah-based faith was conceptually supportive of medical cannabis under the right circumstances.
“The church does not object to the medical use of marijuana,” Gerard said, “if doctor-prescribed in dosage form through a licensed pharmacy.”
Two months later, Gerard’s statement serves as the most succinct way of describing the new medical marijuana agreement. If enacted, patients will be able to obtain only specifically prescribed doses of cannabis — including the separation of unprocessed flowers into compartmentalized blister packs — from county health departments or strictly controlled “medical cannabis pharmacies," which require a licensed pharmacist on staff.
Loser: Walter J. Plumb III
After personally bankrolling the launch of the Drug Safe Utah coalition and suing the state in the hopes of stripping Prop 2 from the ballot, developer Walter J. Plumb III maintains his opposition to the legalization of medical marijuana.
Plumb’s lawsuit — widely perceived as a “Hail Mary” long shot — remains in the courts, and his lawyers requested an expedited decision the night before the medical marijuana agreement was announced. But his allies in the LDS Church and the Utah Medical Association have now agreed to “de-escalate” their opposition campaign, leaving Plumb effectively in a coalition of one as state leaders say it is nearly inevitable that medical marijuana will be legalized.
Winner: Utah’s governor and lawmakers
Gov. Gary Herbert and members of the Utah Legislature have expressed open disdain for the ballot initiative process, saying at nearly every chance they get that the standard legislative process results in better laws. But polling suggested the argument wasn’t connecting with voters, who consistently signaled their support for Proposition 2.
With a deal in hand, and the buy-in from both sides of the initiative fight, lawmakers now have the political cover to jettison Prop 2 if it passes, or to initiate their own bill if the initiative fails. Maximum flexibility.
Despite the assurances of the governor and legislative leaders, a legislative vote still has to be held. House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, hesitated Thursday when asked if majorities in the House and Senate had signed off on the agreement. And he added the agreement will still be subject to the debate and amendments of a normal legislative process.
“I have not posed this to my colleagues as up or down; you have to take this and swallow it whole,” Hughes said. “My colleagues believe this is far better than having to clean up something, or be expected to.”
Loser: Voters and Prop 2 fans
Critics of Prop 2, like Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber, frequently suggested that no one had actually read that 28-page bill at the heart of the initiative. Supporters, meanwhile, argued that it represents one of the most conservatively written medical marijuana initiatives in the country.
To anyone who did read the language, or believed the initiative to be an ideal marijuana program for Utah, it appears likely that bill will never actually see the light of day.
And to voters who thought they would get to have the final word on this decision, that’s not happening.
“Whether it passes or fails, we’re going to arrive at the same point and conclusion,” Herbert said Thursday, and that’s this new agreement.
Unclear: Utah patients
The deal means a smaller population of qualifying patients, who would be able to access a more limited variety of marijuana products. But the flip side of that coin, according to Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, is the comfort of a state-sanctioned program with the backing of legislative leaders.
“We don’t want to win the battle in November only to potentially lose the war,” Boyack said. “More to the point, we don’t want there to be a war.”
The Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy organization and major contributor to Prop 2, released a statement Thursday praising the negotiated agreement and saying it is “undoubtedly a victory for Utah patients and their families.”
But the organization’s statement also refers to “cumbersome” elements in the new proposal. And advocates have expressed concern that the deal’s emphasis on precise dosage could drive up costs. With recreational use legal in both Colorado and Nevada — and black-market cannabis readily available in Utah — some medical marijuana supporters worry that Utah’s proposed rules could turn away patients from the state’s program and toward illegal sources of marijuana.
“This campaign was never about notching up another election victory,” Marijuana Policy Project deputy director Matthew Schweich said in a prepared statement. “Our goal was simply to help medical cannabis patients in Utah who are being treated like criminals as they seek to alleviate their suffering. With this compromise, we have achieved that goal.”