Utah lawmakers overwhelmingly approve medical marijuana alternative legislation

Utah lawmakers – after some inflammatory rhetoric – passed in a Monday special session a “compromise” bill on medical marijuana – just as they were expected to do.

Now watch for a lawsuit being filed by patients’ advocates who strongly objected to legislators changing Prop. 2, passed with 53 percent of the vote Nov. 6 by citizens.

Here is the bill as passed on Monday. To add extra weight to the political pressure put on by GOP legislators to approve the compromise, it was sponsored in the House by retiring Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

House members debated the bill for more than two hours, with citizens in the gallery being warned not to cheer or boo – the issue being an emotional one.

It passed, 60-13, with only one Republican voting against it, all others were Democrats.

On the Senate side, the debate was a little more reserved as lawmakers were more familiar with the concept, having considered medical cannabis legislation over the past four years. The bill passed there  22-4, with only Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, breaking with his Democratic colleagues to vote for the alternative legislation.

Christine Stenquist, head of TRUCE, in an impromptu press conference before the session in the House gallery, said, “We do not accept” the Legislature’s actions.

Utahns’ voices “are being silenced” because the leaders of the LDS Church got involved in the Prop. 2 debate, she said, opposing the citizen initiative that would set up a medical marijuana growing and distribution system for people suffering from various illnesses, including chronic pain.

She said if lawmakers are allowed to rewrite an adopted citizen initiative, just days after it takes effect, then watch out for Medicaid expansion or the independent redistricting commission – which also passed Nov. 6 and have also been threatened by legislative action that could nullify or greatly change the propositions – most likely in the 2019 Legislature, which starts in just over a month.

The LDS Church opposed Prop. 2, but supported the compromise. Church representatives, as well as others, participated with Hughes in drafting the compromise bill.

But House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, who voted for a substitute bill that would have made only technical changes to the compromise, said he hopes Utahns don’t believe the LDS Church dictates policy to the Legislature – where upwards of 80 percent of members of either party, are faithful Mormons.

“Don’t lose faith,” he said, and believe that lawmakers do just what Mormon leaders want.

“We do the right thing for the right reasons,” regardless of whether the LDS Church or any other special interest group says, he added.

King brought up the fact that despite the then-LDS Church President Heber J. Grant “pleaded” with lawmakers to reject the repeal of Prohibition, the Utah Legislature in a December 1932 did vote as citizens wanted, and was the state that brought the amendment to fruition – allowing alcoholic beverages to be legally sold and used again in the United States.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, tried to get the House to take out the part of the bill that requires those 18, 19 and 20 to get special medical marijuana approval from a “compassionate board” – a state commission established to deal with individual patient needs via medical marijuana.

Greene said real conservatives would let 18-year-olds, who can be drafted to fight in a war —  let his own doctor decide if he could benefit from medical marijuana. But his amendment failed, 45-27.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who also had amendments that he did not introduce Monday, said lawmakers may well revisit the new law in the 2019 Legislature, and make more changes to it – something those who strongly favored the bill Monday worry about – more meddling by legislators in just a few months.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, is a lawyer in the LDS Church’s main law private firm, which issued two opinions over the summer against Prop. 2.

Nelson said he’s voted against all previous medical marijuana bills because it is against federal law to use it in any way.

But, said Nelson, he’s come to support Monday’s bill because Congress has “refused to act” for 13 years as state after state has passed medical marijuana laws – and each year a bill has been introduced in Congress to take marijuana off of the federal Schedule 1 drug prohibition law.

When Congress is inactive on an issue, the state has the Constitutional right to act, said Nelson, and so he believes it is appropriate for Utah citizens to pass Prop. 2, and right that the Legislature can change an initiative – as both groups have taken their constitutional rights to do so.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, in his legislative swan song as he’s leaving the Hill at the end of the year, attempted to derail the alternative bill with a substitute measure that would simply decriminalize marijuana possession for those who possess a prescription card from the state. Naturally, that idea didn’t fly.

“What are we doing? (The compromise bill) creates a nanny state. It’s astonishing,” said Dabakis. “The state has ever in one fell swoop created this kind of bureaucracy all at once. It’s something that Democrats could only conceive of in their wildest dreams.”

During the final vote, Dabakis chided his colleagues for undoing the voter-approved initiative, saying “a majority of people in Utah feel disrespected today.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, was dismayed that the legislation was rushed through in Monday’s special session. “It’s irresponsible that we’re rushing this. It’s bad public policy.”

Since the bill passed with a ⅔ vote in both houses, it takes effect immediately upon the signature of Gov. Herbert, who signed the bill into law on Monday evening.