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Utah Group Challenging Medical Marijuana Compromise in State Supreme Court

The People’s Right, a newly formed Political Issues Committee, says the legislative gutting of voter-approved Prop 2. is an assault on democracy.

Adam Drury

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The Governor of Utah Just Signed A Medical Marijuana Bill
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Despite a fierce, well-organized and well-funded opposition campaign by a powerful coalition of religious organizations and conservative health professionals, 53 percent of Utah voters said yes to Proposition 2 in November, legalizing access to medical cannabis treatments. But in a special legislative session last week, Utah lawmakers, including many who oppose Prop 2., passed what they call a “compromise bill,” overriding many of the substantial elements of the voter-approved legislation. In response, several Utahns have come together to form a new advocacy group called The People’s Right (TPR) to fight the legislative override in court.

The People’s Right Files With Supreme Court to Restore Voter-Approved Medical MJ Law

The People’s Right, a newly formed Political Issues Committee, is demanding that the Utah Supreme Court restore the medical cannabis law voters approved in November. Today, TPR filed a Writ of Extraordinary Relief with the Utah Supreme Court in Salt Lake City. In the writ, TPR Chair Steve Maxfield says that the gutting of Prop. 2 by Utah legislators and Governor Gary Herbert disregarded the will of the People and “attacked their voice and vote.”

Maxfield filed the writ pro se, which means he’ll represent himself rather than TPR. This allows Maxfield to avoid relying on an officer of the court, like a state’s attorney, to argue for the rights of the People of Utah. Maxfield wants the Supreme Court to “remedy the situation” by making the version of Prop. 2 voters approved the “Law of the Land.”

Battle Over Medical Cannabis Law Causing Constitutional Crisis in Utah

The grounds for Maxfield’s appeal to the Court is the “co-equal” legislative authority given to the People of Utah. In other words, Utah voters can pass bills through referendums, and lawmakers are supposed to carry out their decision. On the issue of medical cannabis, however, opposition lawmakers were unwilling to take a back seat. Instead, they held a special legislative session on December 3. Gov. Herbert called for the special session in October before the November vote on Prop. 2 even took place.

As a result of the special session, the Utah Assembly passed their “compromise bill,” stripping Prop. 2 of several key provisions. Voters approved a bill that would let patients grow their own medical cannabis, allow smokable forms of cannabis, permit dispensaries and let most doctors issue recommendations. The compromise bill, however, eliminates all of those provisions. Lawmakers eliminated home growing, dispensaries and smokable forms of cannabis. Furthermore, the compromise bill only allows specially-trained doctors to write MMJ recommendations and reduces the number of qualifying conditions.

“Our public servants have squeezed citizens out of their fundamental, guaranteed place at the table of legislative rights and processes,” said Maxfield. “It is either time for their arrogance to be checked, or for the Supreme Court to admit that the People’s vote is meaningless.”

Struggle Over Medical Cannabis Exposes Mormon Church’s Influence on Utah Government

For Maxfield and TPR, the gutting of Prop. 2 raises a much broader concern about democracy in Utah. The state’s constitution is clear on the role voters play in the legislative process. But Maxfield says the special session, along with stringent requirements for citizen initiatives and referendums, has created a constitutional crisis in Utah.

But the struggle over legal access to medical cannabis has also revealed the immense influence the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormon Church, wields in Utah’s halls of government. About two-thirds of Utahns are Mormon. A majority of the state’s lawmakers are Mormon, also. In the lead up to November’s vote on Prop. 2, the Mormon Church was a prominent and vocal critic of legalization. Indeed, criticism from LDS members only subsided when Gov. Herbert made it clear that opposition lawmakers would have a hand in crafting the replacement bill.

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