Prop 2 supporters, opponents regroup after announcement of medical marijuana deal

Last week, opposing factions in the state’s medical marijuana debate stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the Utah Capitol, many of them brimming with gratitude over their newfound collaboration.

They’d gathered to reveal they’d coalesced around a Proposition 2 alternative — draft legislation that state lawmakers will take up next month in a special session. The once-warring interest groups declared that, although their underlying positions remained unchanged, they would lower their swords in a gesture of good faith.

Watching from the front row, real estate tycoon Walter J. Plumb III was in no mood to call a truce with medical marijuana advocates.

"I like to win things," Plumb, a longtime anti-marijuana crusader, said Tuesday in the 20th-floor office suite where he works. "This would not be my style. I would not negotiate with this group."

Plumb has already donated $130,000 in cash to Drug Safe Utah and another campaign opposing Proposition 2 and is supporting a lawsuit challenging the initiative. Altogether, he estimates he’s personally shelled out roughly $200,000 on the effort, plus another $100,000 donated by Colony Partners, a company he manages.

He said he’s set himself no spending limit and won’t stop working until he’s satisfied that Utah’s medical marijuana laws sufficiently protect young people.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Libertas Institute president Connor Boyack answers questions from the media alongside Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, from left, following an announcement of a compromise to the medical marijuana bill. Supporters and opponents of UtahÕs medical marijuana initiative joined with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at the Utah Capitol to announce a Òshared visionÓ for cannabis policy.

So, despite the team spirit on display last week, the revelation of a consensus bill didn’t mark an end to the battle over medical marijuana. For Plumb, it just meant a change in strategy. For others engaged in the debate, it signaled the splintering of old alliances and the formation of new ones.

Ceasefire for some

Plumb in April began helping steer the political issues committee Drug Safe Utah, a coalition that drew support from faith leaders, law enforcement groups and chambers of commerce.

Plumb brought his checkbook and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints its far-reaching influence, while the Utah Medical Association’s CEO, Michelle McOmber, served as the face of the coalition.

As part of last week’s accord, the LDS Church and the medical association agreed to refrain from further advertising against the ballot initiative beyond what already had been contracted.

Drug Safe Utah itself did not sign onto the partial ceasefire, and its members aren’t speaking in unison about what’s next.

Plumb said he expects the group will wind down its media campaign (the final television ads are scheduled to air Thursday), in view of the agreement struck by certain coalition members. Going forward, he’ll turn attention to the special session where legislators will hash out the structure of the state’s medical marijuana program. Gayle Ruzicka, another member of Drug Safe Utah, isn’t so sure future ad buys are off the table.

The medical marijuana deal has also altered the landscape for initiative supporters. Medical marijuana advocate Christine Stenquist is scrambling to fire up a pro-Prop 2 media campaign to replace one abandoned by the Utah Patients Coalition as part of the negotiations. Stenquist’s group, TRUCE Utah, was not part of these talks and she said she’s dismayed by the concessions other advocates made.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Christine Stenquist, Executive Director of TRUCE Utah, which looks for responsible use and education of cannabis joins in the cannabis conversation following a House Health and Human Services standing committee at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, for two cannabis bills, HB197 and HB195.

“There’s nothing that obligates any legislator to vote for this compromise,” she said. “I look at this as political theater.”

The pro-initiative groups were in a position of strength, given how well Prop 2 has been polling among the state’s voters, she added. Sixty-four percent of likely Utah voters favor the initiative, according to a Deseret News poll conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7.

Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian Libertas Institute and a leader in the Utah Patients Coalition, said the bargain was a strategic move borne of necessity; given the LDS Church’s power, there was a real possibility that even if Prop 2 passed, lawmakers would gut the measure, he said.

“We have to recognize that we are up against Goliath, and we are David,” he said. “From our vantage point, we found it optimal to enter into negotiations and find a way to satisfy the opponents' concerns while offering patients access to a strong and robust medical marijuana program.”

What’s next in the medical cannabis fight?

The drafted bill to create a medical marijuana program contains several elements that Plumb finds troubling and that he aims to change through the legislative process.

For one, he’s opposed to private pharmacies and wants to see the state control all distribution. He doesn’t want unprocessed marijuana to be available to patients. And, with a few exceptions, he believes in forbidding medical marijuana for people 25 or younger.

“Why would we give a medical marijuana card to an 18-year-old, when even to buy liquor they have to be 21 years old?” he said.

The idea strikes at the heart of Plumb’s concern over expanding medical marijuana in the state. His work on battling youth addiction began about two decades ago after his nephew, Andrew Plumb, died of a heroin overdose. Plumb believes marijuana acted as a gateway that led his nephew to harder drugs.

But Boyack contends that it would be unfair to prohibit medical cannabis treatments for sick children who might find relief from them.

“We’d rather not place handcuffs on physicians who legitimately feel that a given child would benefit from a cannabis regimen,” he said.

Boyack and advocates who signed on to last week’s agreement have scaled down their Prop 2 campaigns and spent the ensuing days encouraging other groups to follow suit, he said. While they’re still pushing for the initiative’s success, they’re hoping to avoid any scorched-earth campaigning in coming weeks.

“We’ve been working with other parties to ensure we don’t have any rogue supporters trying to launch a massive campaign,” Boyack said. “For the next few weeks, we could’ve had outright war and significant division in our community. ... But in the spirit of compromise and the agreement, we’ve aimed to de-escalate that war.”

However, Stenquist still has her attention trained on Prop 2, saying the consensus legislation calls for an over-regulated, overly restrictive medical marijuana program.

In late September, after hearing rumblings that the Utah Patients Coalition was exploring a compromise, her group and the Epilepsy Association of Utah created their own political issues committee that could carry the torch in support of the initiative. She would not say how much money the group, Patients and Families for Prop 2, has raised so far for advertising. But the goal is to persuade voters that the initiative’s passage is essential, despite the promise of a special session on medical marijuana.

“The only thing that is a guarantee is Prop 2. Everything else is just a dangling carrot,” Stenquist said.

Although she’s in the opposing camp, Ruzicka is also focused on Prop 2 out of uncertainty for what the Legislature will do.

“We are not involved in the negotiations or the legislation. We are working on just defeating Prop 2,” said Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum.

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka of the Eagle Forum testifying on legislation before a committee at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2017.

On Wednesday, Ruzicka represented Drug Safe Utah at a news conference organized by the Davis County Republican Women to spread awareness about the difference between the ballot initiative and the legislation that lawmakers will debate next month.

Ruzicka argues Prop 2 poses an imminent threat because it would provide an “affirmative defense” to certain people caught carrying marijuana over the next couple years, as the state’s medical cannabis program takes shape. The provision would, in essence, give anyone free rein to abuse the illegal substance, she claims.

(Boyack said Ruzicka has misrepresented the provision, which would not give people immunity from arrest but simply offer qualifying patients the opportunity to make their case before a judge.)

Plumb and McOmber contend that voters should reject Prop 2 so lawmakers get the message that Utahns want a medical marijuana program with more safeguards against abuse and recreational use.

To Prop 2 opponents, the drafted legislation is an improvement because it would restrict the varieties of medical marijuana products and remove "chronic pain" as a qualifying condition for receiving the substance. Instead, patients could access medical cannabis if they experience "pain lasting longer than two weeks, under certain conditions."

And notably absent from much of the legislation is the term “dispensary,” a word that the LDS Church and other Prop 2 critics have resisted because they associate it with a lax approach to cannabis distribution. The privately run pharmacies would be similar to dispensaries but would employ licensed pharmacists to consult with patients.