Monday’s special session to pass an alternative medical cannabis bill that would override Prop. 2 seems like a fait accompli as Speaker Greg Hughes has repeatedly said he has the votes. But what happens if the bill unexpectedly fails or is blocked?
The fight over replacing Prop. 2 has turned into a political battle royale, especially on social media. Opponents of the compromise legislation have been loudly demonizing lawmakers as “subverting the will of the voters” who overwhelmingly approved Prop. 2 last month.
There are already several substitute bills being drafted, most notably from Democrats Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City. While it’s unlikely that either of those measures will get much traction in the Republican-controlled legislature, there’s also the very real possibility that individual lawmakers may try to alter the bill through amendments from the floor.
Legislative leaders are warning that if lawmakers go too far afield from the alternative bill, it could end up scuttling the whole deal and lead to a raft of unintended consequences.
“While there are some voices calling for Prop. 2 to remain untouched, there are also voices who didn’t want Prop. 2 at all,” said one legislative source to UtahPolicy.com.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, who spearheaded the effort to come up with the alternative bill, bristles when he hears that lawmakers are gutting a bill that voters overwhelmingly approved.
“This agreement has been collaborative, and it included people who wrote Prop. 2,” he said. “It’s not ‘gutting’ the initiative. There’s a trench mentality out there that it’s one or the other, and that’s not true.”
It’s worth pointing out that many of those who supported Prop. 2, only wanted it to pass as a stick to make sure the legislature followed through and lived up to their agreement to take action and approve the alternative. However, the narrative from opponents of the compromise has shifted dramatically to an all-or-nothing push to keep Prop. 2 intact.
At the October 4 press conference to announce the initial compromise bill, Scott Hayashi of the Episcopal Diocese said he was uneasy about Prop. 2, and welcomed the compromise legislation.
“I saw the good of medical cannabis and was troubled by the way that the conversation had not advanced much. There are elements of Prop. 2 I found troubling,” he said.
Former Utah Sen. Mark Madsen, who was stymied time and again as he fought to pass a medical marijuana bill, said he supported the agreement but said an “overwhelming vote” in favor of Prop. 2 was the best safeguard to make sure lawmakers followed through. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Prop. 2.
Sen. Todd Weiler has noted on social media that Prop. 2 was rejected by his constituents.
Since the governor has called a special session on medical marijuana, I’m hearing a lot about the “will of the people. Most who have contacted me say they didn’t read Prop 2. Is the will of the people to legalize medical marijuana, or to stick to every word of Prop 2? #utpol— Todd Weiler (@gopTODD) December 1, 2018
“Am I supposed to respect the will of (Sen.) Debakis’ (sic) voters -- or my own? Several constituents told me they voted for Prop 2 to ensure the #utleg followed through with the compromise bill. What is the will of the people in that regard?” he tweeted.
Opponents have been demonizing lawmakers for even considering making wholesale changes to the initiative. One of the leading critics of the alternative bill is former Sen. Steve Urquhart. Ironically, Urquhart was the House sponsor of SB175 in 2004. That bill rolled back parts of Initiative B, which was passed by Utah voters in 2000 with nearly 70% of the vote. Initiative B prohibited police agencies from profiting from civil asset forfeitures. It was the first time in decades that lawmakers had overturned a citizen ballot initiative, and Urquhart played a central role in its undoing.
Urquhart called his involvement in the undoing of Initiative B one of the biggest regrets from his political career.
“I was a pretty new legislator, and disrespected democracy with that sponsorship,” said Urquhart in a text message. “I was a much different legislator at the end of my service than at the beginning. I wish I had that one to do over. Because, yes, it was very wrong.”
So what might happen in the extremely unlikely event the alternative bill fails Monday? There are several possibilities.
The most likely result if the compromise bill fails is lawmakers will strip out the “affirmative defense” provision in Prop. 2 and then change the implementation date, likely for at least three years. Indeed, several lawmakers think the state needs much more time to prepare for implementing a medical marijuana program than the timeline laid out in Prop. 2.
It’s also conceivable, but highly unlikely, that lawmakers eviscerate Prop. 2 during the 2019 legislative session and start from scratch. Strange things sometimes happen during the session, and it’s much easier to make major changes to policy when attention is divided among several big issues.
Lawmakers also could leave Prop. 2 as is with just a few minor changes to clean up the initiative. The odds of that happening are pretty much zero.