Special session on legalizing medical marijuana expected mid-November

Look for a special legislative session Nov. 14 or 15 to adopt the 4,000-line medical marijuana bill, heard in a legislative committee Wednesday afternoon, UtahPolicy.com is told.

It’s up to GOP Gov. Gary Herbert to call a special session – lawmakers don’t have that power (although a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot will give them that if it passes).

There are all kinds of good reasons for the difficult compromise reached by legislative leaders (outgoing Speaker Greg Hughes at the forefront) and proponents and opponents of Prop. 2 – the controversial citizen initiative that will be on the ballot in two weeks.

But pass or fail, lawmakers will meet in a special session – perhaps a day-long event, Hughes tells UtahPolicy – to adopt the compromise legislation.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Hughes said Wednesday’s public hearing in an interim committee on the proposed compromise bill likely would not be the last such hearing.

“I imagine (the interim committee) will reconvene to hear more debate,” said Hughes. Leaders won’t demand from their caucuses that the lengthy bill is sacrosanct – amendments will be heard to make the massive new medical marijuana process better, he hopes.

House Republicans held a closed caucus Wednesday (usually their caucuses are open) to talk about the compromise. Senate Republicans usually meet in closed caucus, and did so Wednesday.

Hughes said he wanted to have a frank discussion with his 62 caucus members – and feared the media or others from the public might misinterpret some of the items said if the caucus meeting was open.

From a purely political view, the compromise is a good thing for the GOP legislative candidates, Hughes conceded.

Although considering all the other problems that could have arisen if the compromise wasn’t reached, upcoming elections were far down the list, he said.

Anyway, most GOP legislative candidates – incumbents or challengers – are faithful members of the LDS Church.

And since church leaders had come out strongly against Prop. 2, it could have been a political problem in their campaigns if these Mormon candidates looked like they were giving in to church leaders in opposing Prop. 2 – even though there were legitimate reasons to oppose the ballot proposition.

No way Republicans would lose control of the 75-member House or 29-member Senate over opposing Prop. 2 – Utah is a very Republican state, and Republicans will keep control of the Legislature after Nov. 6.

But in a few close races, Democratic candidates could have made some points among voters by labeling their GOP challengers as lackeys of the Mormon church – doing church leaders’ bidding on Prop. 2.

Now that’s out of the debate.

And Hughes says he’s talked to some House Democrats and believes the compromise will have Democratic votes in the special session.

However not everyone is going to agree, Hughes said.

Some on the right don’t want any kind of marijuana legalized in Utah – even for limited medical purposes.

Some on the left want the original Prop. 2, believing somehow the compromise will be too restrictive; some who could benefit from medical marijuana may not be able to get it.

But the feeling in the Capitol Wednesday during the regular monthly interim study committees was one of relief – the very emotional, divisive issue of medical marijuana appears will be settled, no matter how citizens vote on Prop. 2 Nov. 6.

Hughes maintains that the “hours and hours” put in by the various negotiating groups over the last several weeks “couldn’t have been found in a normal 45-day general session.”

There are just too many other issues – budgets and bills – that would take up time in the 2019 session, which starts the end of January.

Hughes and others have been criticized for holding meetings behind closed doors. One pro-Prop. 2 group, TRUCE, is still critical of the compromise.

Others didn’t like that the LDS Church, represented by former GOP House Speaker Marty Stephens, who is the church’s chief government affairs officer, played an important part in the negotiations.

Hughes praises Stephens, however, saying he and other interest group representatives – including Prop. 2 organizers — kept at the talks until a compromise was reached.

Some want medical marijuana taxed if nothing more than to pay for the state’s cost in administrative the extensive program of officially growing, processing and distributing medical marijuana.

Hughes says he didn’t deal with that at all in his compromise. “We don’t tax other medicines; so I don’t see how that would work here.”

In other states – and in Canada, which just legalized recreational marijuana this week – the issue of taxing is critical, with some saying high taxes will just keep the underground, traditional marijuana networks working.

Hughes said he doesn’t see Utah’s medical marijuana network doing much, if anything, to stop current recreationally use of marijuana in the state.

“The black market, underground use will stay about the same, I’m told,” he said.

But a huge social, political divisive battle has been avoided by the compromise, Hughes believes.

For him, Hughes said, it wasn’t really about LDS Church leaders doing this or that, or Prop. 2 advocates saying this or that, it was about regular Utah families being impacted by not only the debate but the real-life consequences of living with loved ones who could benefit from proper medical marijuana use.

“There were very strong emotions out there,” he said. “Parts of the negotiations were heated. I think we’ve reached a good place (in the compromise).”

But the huge bill likely can be made better, and the next few weeks up through the special session will see more debate, more hearings, and amendments aimed at making that bill better still.