Negotiations on possible medical marijuana compromise continue, but time grows short

Legislative sources say the leak of a confidential “working draft” of a possible compromise legislation on medical marijuana was a damaging blow to negotiations but didn’t completely derail the process.

As first reported last week, and later confirmed by other media outlets, legislative leaders, the LDS Church and backers of Prop. 2 were meeting, trying to find a compromise position for changes to the ballot initiative that legalizes medical marijuana if it passes, or a way to legalize medical marijuana for more patients if it fails in November.

Among the items under consideration are safeguards to prevent legally grown medical marijuana from being diverted to a secondary market for illegal sale to those who cannot legally purchase cannabis, measures to ensure the quality and safety of medical marijuana for patients, and effective barriers to keep the product away from children.

Sources involved in the negotiations, who spoke to on condition of anonymity, say the leak of the working draft has crippled their efforts, but they hope the blow wasn’t fatal.

“It was a setback, but we are still trying to get somewhere,” they said.

Those efforts will be difficult, if not nearly impossible as both pro- and anti-Prop. 2 groups start their campaigns ahead of the November elections in earnest, including taking the fight to the airwaves.

“It will be almost impossible to sit together seeking common ground once the campaigns heat up,” they said. “There are proponents and opponents of Prop. 2 who want nothing more than to fight it out instead of working together.”

Several people involved in the negotiations have said they believe the “working draft” was leaked in an effort to “blow up” negotiations before they reached a critical point. That’s not surprising, as reported last week that stakeholders, both pro and con, were angered by some of the items under discussion. Absolutists on either side of the issue are enraged that a compromise is even under consideration.

That the talks are even taking place at all is a bit of a minor miracle. Both opponents and proponents feel emboldened heading into November’s election, drawing from polling data or anecdotal evidence that bolsters their point of view. Polling shows more than 60% of Utahns favor legalizing medical cannabis, but several lawmakers spoke to say they are finding more and more people who are uncomfortable with some of the provisions contained in the ballot initiative.

In absence of a compromise, there’s a real possibility that lawmakers will either drastically alter Prop. 2 after passage or gut the initiative completely. Some have speculated that it would be easy to “defang’ Prop. 2 by removing the “grow your own” and “affirmative defense” provisions from the proposition after passage. Those two elements are the stick requiring the state to meet the timeline for establishing production guidelines and dispensaries. If the state misses those deadlines, Utahns who qualify to receive medical cannabis will be able to either grow their own plants or contract with someone to grow cannabis for them. Additionally, anyone who is cited for possession of marijuana cannot be prosecuted if they can prove their conduct would be legal after the deadlines contained in the initiative. If these two provisions are stripped out by lawmakers, then there will be no consequences for the state missing the deadlines.

But, that draconian move would likely backfire in the court of public opinion, and some lawmakers say they would be queasy effectively overturning a voter-approved initiative, especially one that inflames passions on both sides.

Sources indicate that negotiations will continue this week, but hopes are growing dim that they’ll be able to reach an accord.