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Advocates ready to launch whole-plant medical marijuana ballot initiative

FILE - This Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, shows the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Utah Patients Coalition will submit a ballot initiative application to the lieutenant governor's office Monday that, if supported, would allow Utahns to vote
FILE - This Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, shows the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Utah Patients Coalition will submit a ballot initiative application to the lieutenant governor's office Monday that, if supported, would allow Utahns to vote on whether to legalize medical use of the whole marijuana plant.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A patients advocacy group plans to submit a ballot initiative application to the lieutenant governor's office Monday to let Utah voters decide whether or not to legalize medical use of the whole marijuana plant in Utah.

The Utah Patients Coalition, a political issues committee that will submit the application following a press conference at 10 a.m. Monday at the Capitol, believes signs are encouraging that Utahns would ultimately support the measure if directly given the choice.

"We did a poll during the (legislative) session trying to figure out what is the temperature here, what is going on for Utahns when it comes to this issue," said Christine Stenquist, coalition spokeswoman. "Those were beautiful, favorable results, and so it gave us enough confidence to go back to our investors … and say, ‘Hey, here's our polls, we're good to go.’"

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox's office will review the application for several requirements before approving it. Those include reviews to ensure that the initiative is not "patently unconstitutional (or) nonsensical," that it contains no more than a single subject, that its objective is clearly stated in its title, and that it is not identical or substantially similar to any initiative applied for in the last two years, said Mark Thomas, the state elections director.

If the initiative is approved, the Utah Patients Coalition must hold one public hearing each in seven designated geographic areas of the state. The group must also collect at least 113,143 signatures, which is 10 percent of all Utahns who cast a vote for president in the most recent election. Similarly calculated signature thresholds must also be met in at least 26 of Utah's 29 senate districts.

Any group applying to launch a ballot initiative must also be formally designated as a political issues committee under Utah law.

"It is tremendously huge and extremely complicated," Stenquist said.

The Utah Patients Coalition said in 2016 that it planned to launch a ballot initiative campaign, but there was not enough time to get it off the ground, Stenquist said. She believes this time will be different.

"We had six weeks to get the filing, to get the money, to get the signatures to make it for the 2016 ballot. There was just no way," she said. "In our excitement, we said we're going to do the ballot initiative and then we dug deep and saw how really complicated it was."

The signatures will be due by April 15 next year.

Stenquist, who is also president and founder of a medical cannabis advocacy group called TRUCE, declined to go into detail about the statutory language in the initiative. She did say it does not seek legalization for recreational use.

Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, who co-sponsored a failed bill from then-state Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, in 2016 proposing legalization of the marijuana plant for medical use, said he is supportive of a statewide vote.

"The only way I think we can get a true reading of the public is to get it on the ballot," Froerer said.

If it's clear by the time of next year's legislative session that the initiative will be on the ballot, he said, there will be no excuse for state lawmakers not to prepare a law outlining the regulatory framework that determines how marijuana used for medical purposes is allowed to be grown, transported and sold, among other considerations.

"The issue or question that I would have is other states that put it on the ballot without the infrastructure sometimes come up with more problems than they anticipate," he said.

No formal limit is placed on the lieutenant governor's office review of the ballot initiative application, Thomas said, but the office tries to move quickly in order to give organizations plenty of time to complete the rest of the process.

The last initiative to make it to the ballot was Utah Clean Water Initiative 1, in 2004, Thomas said. That measure failed. He said a referendum — which is different than an initiative only in that it strikes down a law instead of enacting one — made the ballot in 2007, when Utah voters rejected school voucher legislation.

Stenquist said full use of the marijuana plant is medically necessary to give some ill patients in Utah "a better option." But she added she doesn't "see a champion on our (Capitol) Hill right now, and that is why were are left with this route only."

"At some point in our politics, we have to start listening to the people," Stenquist said. "And I feel like this is the people taking our voice back."

A reluctant Legislature defeated Madsen's and one other bill in 2016 attempting to expand marijuana's medical use in the state. Lawmakers passed a bill promoting additional research into the plant in this year's legislative session, but no bills promoting its medical use were formally introduced.

Contributing: Ladd Egan