Ballot initiative protection law proposed by marijuana advocate and former Utah legislator

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Hemp plants growing under LED lights at Moon Lake Farms in North Salt Lake on Friday July 12, 2019.

After Utah lawmakers repealed and replaced two of the three successful ballot initiatives from the 2018 election, some prominent advocates are proposing new legislation to protect laws enacted by voters.

Steve Urquhart, a former Republican state senator, and Christine Stenquist, president of the marijuana advocacy group TRUCE, announced Thursday their push for the Utah Initiative Protection Act, a law that would require public ratification of any legislative repeal or amendment to a law passed via citizen initiative.

“The Utah Constitution gives the voters and the Legislature equal power; it’s a beautiful and unique design,” Stenquist said in a prepared statement. “However, when abuse of power is experienced from one partner, a statute must be put in place to ensure proper balance is restored.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE Utah, which looks for responsible use and education of cannabis listens in on the cannabis conversation during House Health and Human Services standing committee at the Utah Capitol on Jan. 31, 2018.

As president of TRUCE — an acronym for Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education — Stenquist was involved in the campaign for Proposition 2, which legalized the use of medical marijuana for qualifying patients in the state and created a cannabis distribution system that relied on private dispensaries.

The initiative received roughly 53 percent of a statewide vote but was ultimately rejected by lawmakers during a special legislative session. They instead adopted of a more restrictive law limiting the qualifying conditions for marijuana use and creating a state-run distribution model that relies on county health departments to reach patients in Utah’s rural areas.

County attorneys in Utah have recently questioned the legality of the Legislature’s model.

Lawmakers similarly rejected Proposition 3, an initiative that would have fully expanded Medicaid in the state, and replaced it with SB96.

That law sought a series of federal waivers from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act to secure enhanced funding for a smaller pool of patients. But the Trump administration has indicated it will reject portions of SB96, setting up the potential that a fallback provision in the law will be triggered and that full expansion will occur next year.

In a prepared statement, Urquhart said the Utah Initiative Protection Act — or Utah IPA — would force lawmakers to have the necessary conversations they are currently unwilling to engage in.

“I am excited to see this idea move forward," Urquhart said. "We will learn in the next legislative session whether the Legislature has learned from its recent mistakes and now values the right of citizens to make laws. If it does not, we will use the initiative process to force it to respect that right.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) In this file photo, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, center, chief sponsor of SB107, which deals with Hate Crimes Amendments, is joined by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams as the bill is discussed in the Senate Chambers, Feb. 26, 2016.

Urquhart told FOX 13′s Ben Winslow on Thursday that he is meeting with lawmakers in hopes of finding someone willing to sponsor the Utah Initiative Protection Act during the 2020 session. His and Stenquist’s proposal would, in effect, require a second vote of the public on any changes to an initiative approved by legislators.

Urquhart said the prospect of an automatic referendum would incentivize lawmakers to engage in negotiations with the sponsors of an initiative before tinkering with a voter-approved law.

“If they knew the people could pass a law that really stuck on cannabis, on Medicaid," he said, “I guarantee you the conversations would have been much different.”

FOX 13 also reported that other groups, including the United Utah Party, are exploring potential efforts to protect ballot initiatives.

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.