Cannabis legislation has struggled in Utah. Political opposition and legislative stonewalling have led to numerous setbacks and half-measures that have both failed to satisfy advocates while still drawing the ire of opposition groups. Earlier this year, Utah passed a bill adding cannabis to their “right to try” law, giving terminally ill patients the right to try medical treatments that don’t have FDA approval. But pro-cannabis organizers continued pushing ahead, gathering many more signatures than required to bring a much wider legalization bill, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, to vote this November. There’s broad support for the bill, but the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have mounted a coordinated and influential counter-campaign.
So the fate of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, on the ballot as Prop. 2, remains uncertain. But at a press conference Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert made a promise. He said that if voters don’t approve Prop. 2, a measure Gov. Herbert does not himself support, he’ll push for legislative action to legalize medical cannabis anyway.
Utah Gov. Wants a Medical Cannabis Bill—Just Not This One
“This bill is not perfect,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters at his monthly KUED news conference. He mentioned “loopholes,” potential conflicts and other problems regarding public safety concerns and controlling access. Herbert’s concerns echo those medical cannabis advocates have heard from the state legislature for years. After numerous failed negotiations to craft a bill that appeased lawmakers, supporters of medical marijuana decided to take the issue directly to a ballot initiative.
Rather than direct his frustration toward state lawmakers, Gov. Herbert pointed the finger at Congress for failing to pass national medical cannabis legislation despite more than 30 states and territories having some form of legal cannabis. As for his own state’s efforts to legalize medical cannabis, Gov. Herbert is not a supporter of Prop. 2.
If voters approve it, Gov. Herbert says the bill will need fixing. And if it doesn’t pass, he has promised a back-up medical marijuana bill “that everybody can support.”
Is Utah Gov.’s Back-Up Medical Cannabis Bill For Real?
Members of the Utah Patients Coalition, one of the groups supporting medical cannabis legalization, is confident that patients will win come November. But even if Prop. 2 passes, Gov. Herbert indicated that lawmakers would still be able to make changes to the bill. Given the legislative opposition to legal medical cannabis, those changes could end up violating the will of voters. At the press conference, Gov. Herbert was short on specifics about how and what in the law would need fixing.
On the other hand, if Prop. 2 fails, it’s unclear that the governor’s back-up bill will be satisfactory either. An alternative piece of legislation is already being crafted by the Utah Medical Association and Drug Safe Utah, the two leading opposition groups next to the LDS Church. Michelle McOmber, UMA’s CEO, said: “We need to do it in a way that’s safe for Utahns, in a way that’s safe for our communities and our children.”
However, the major tweaks McOmber’s coalition is proposing are ones that would ultimately subvert the aim of the legislation: legalizing medical cannabis. In an interview discussing their proposal, McOmber said, “[medical marijuana] would be physician prescribed or something like pharmacy dispensed or pharmacy-like dispensed.”
But both of those proposals—physician prescriptions and pharmacy cannabis sales—are explicitly forbidden under federal law. Doctors cannot legally prescribe medical cannabis, they can only recommend it. Pharmacies can’t sell medical cannabis; specially licensed dispensaries have to.
Utah Will Vote on Medical Cannabis this November
If those are the elements of Gov. Herbert’s promised back-up bill, it’s not such a back-up after all. So come November, Utah voters will have to make a choice. They can either vote yes on Prop. 2, the bill they want and defend it against legislative efforts to water it down. Or they can pass on Prop. 2 and wait for a back-up bill that could very well be dead on arrival.