Commentary: Utah’s coal country could use a (grow) lab of democracy

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Monument to the 27 coal miners who died in the Dec. 19, 1984, Wilberg Mine fire, the state's worst disaster of the past 86 years. The monument is near Orangeville just downhill from the mine in the distant hills.

Lost in the throes of our scandal-fueled, and more than likely tampered-with, 2016 election was a sound bite every American should consider taking seriously: Labs of Democracy.

It is a term adopted on the Democratic National Committee’s platform regarding the issue of decriminalizing marijuana, and one that Americans should get behind in droves.

The concept was quipped by Hillary Clinton in response to reporters’ questions regarding recreational cannabis use in states where it’s legal. Nevertheless, our collective ears should’ve perked up in jubilation of an unorthodox idea coming out of the mouth of a corporate Democrat — one who, for years, was far behind any semblance of forward thinking on the evolving topic of weed.

Such an archaic mindset can still be found right here in Utah. Just ask state transplant Mitt Romney, who didn’t even see medicinal marijuana as an “issue of significance” when he ran in 2012. Whether he has flip-flopped since then, or remains stuck on what will soon be the wrong side of history, is yet to be seen.

One thing is clear, though: Medical cannabis has arrived in the Beehive State, sooner than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had planned, via ballot initiative. If legislators were smart, instead of looking to “compromise” the will of the people, they would create something entirely different in one of the most unlikely of places, fresh off a medicinal victory.

Rather than wrestling with a construct on who will be growing cannabis — the Utah Department of Agriculture or a qualified third party — Utah lawmakers should consider taking a hit, politically and figuratively (why not), and begin thinking outside the box.

Currently, three of the 10 counties with the highest rate of opioid deaths in Utah are, by no coincidence, coal-producing counties. Coal miners like to think the industry they’re in is stable, but know this could change with an election cycle, or due to volatility in the market. In places like Carbon, Emery and Sanpete counties, people continually wonder why nothing is ever done to help transition our economies away from coal. One of the indirect outcomes of this inaction can be seen in higher opioid use that comes with the territory of an injury prone, up-and-down industry.

By stepping outside the box and into a mini lab, lawmakers could help pave this economic transition. We start by hiring a qualified third party, not to grow weed fit for consumption and profit, but to come in and teach coal miners looking to get out of the industry how to grow weed fit for consumption and profit. We then make it easy for them to enter the market as a cooperative grow operation by waiving initial licensing fees, or keeping them low enough for these newcomers to enter it more easily.

Speaking of the market, will the selling of cannabis exist in a free one, or will we be inundated with “state cannabis stores”? If it’s the latter, such grow operations could be where the stores exclusively purchase their product.

If Utah’s Community Impact Board can loan coal companies (who should be able to finance elsewhere) $53 million for export coal ports in Oakland, then it should also be willing to give loans to ex-coal-miner grow operations. This could jumpstart those interested in paving the sort of economic transition that could affect their community in a beneficial way.

Numerous studies have shown that opioid use has fallen in states with medicinal marijuana, so in coal country this idea could be a win-win, but only if we first become a lab of democracy.

Gabriel Hunt

Gabriel Hunt is a former coal miner turned political hip-hop activist (Black Güero) who resides in East Carbon, Utah.