SALT LAKE CITY — Those behind the campaign to legalize medical marijuana and some of its most vocal opponents have reached a tentative agreement on what medical marijuana policy should look like in Utah, the Deseret News has learned.
But it remains unclear whether the agreement means that those who oppose the November ballot initiative known as Proposition 2 will continue to campaign against it, and just how aggressively those in favor will support it.
Proposition 2 remains on the ballot and is not changed by the agreement from both sides; voters will say yes or no on Nov. 6. But the deal means both sides are seeking a legislative solution — a "Utah solution" — to medical marijuana regardless of the Election Day result.
The agreement, made up of policy alternatives to the Proposition 2 provisions that were most heavily criticized by its detractors, comes after private talks with legislative leaders and is expected to be officially announced Thursday.
Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, which has long been opposed to Proposition 2, confirmed Tuesday that her group was involved in reaching the compromise, which "we feel would be much safer and still be compassionate and answer the needs of patients."
McOmber said a consensus was reached "based on the safety of Utah, and the safety of kids, and the safety of patients," and that it drew from "some of the better practices from other states."
"It's a process that we really just had to sit down and hammer out," she told the Deseret News. "It's basically a Utah solution."
"We have come up with a few modifications of agreement, and we'll be releasing those shortly, in the next day or two," DJ Schanz, director of the pro Proposition 2 campaign Utah Patients Coalition, said. He called the arrangement a "tentative agreement."
The Deseret News reported Sunday that Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes was facilitating compromise discussions related to medical marijuana initiative, and that the Utah Patients Coalition, Utah Medical Association, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah Senate and pro-initiative libertarian advocacy group Libertas Institute were all represented in those private talks.
In the preliminary agreement, the initiative's provision allowing people who live 100 miles or more from a dispensary to grow their plants "is completely gone," Schanz said.
The agreement, he said, has also "tightened up" the current Proposition 2 provision permitting a person to use a defense to criminal charges for possession of marijuana on the basis that they can demonstrate they would have been eligible for a medical cannabis card despite not having one.
"Those (provisions) were meant to be triggers to force the state to implement, and we've come up with some other triggers," he said.
Also under the agreement, Schanz said there will be be an effort to "basically keep dosing consistent and regulated."
Concerns over the reliability of medical marijuana doses for people purchasing it at dispensaries has long been a significant argument in the Utah Medical Association's opposition to the ballot initiative.
Under the agreement recently reached over medical marijuana policy, "it's going to be in medicine format rather than the Wild West format that you see in the initiative," McOmber said.
The way the dispensing of marijuana would be handled is also set to be modified under the agreement compared to what is in the initiative, according to Schanz.
"There's going to be a hybrid dispensing model, I can tell you that,' he said. "One that incorporates many of the ideas of the legislators, and our (initiative's) dispensary model. … A hybrid in this case would be some of (state) Sen. (Evan) Vickers' ideas on having a centralized fill pharmacy. That'd be about the extent of what I can get into."
Proposition 2 was written to allow patients with certain medical conditions to qualify for a medical cannabis card allowing them to purchase marijuana legally.
Prop 2 future
Last week, Schanz said he would "absolutely not" entertain the idea of walking away from Proposition 2 as part of any compromise scenario. He reiterated that position Tuesday, saying his campaign was only working on "modifications that are palatable to us."
He said the agreement "isn't a brand new working bill. This is modifications to Proposition 2 we've found acceptable."
But McOmber said there are no plans for her group, the Utah Medical Association, to stop campaigning against the initiative.
"We are still absolutely opposed to Proposition 2," she said.
McOmber, who is also vice president of a political issues committee called Drug Safe Utah that has been raising funds to campaign against Proposition 2, said "in no way shape or form should that be the assumption" that those who have objected to the initiative will rescind their opposition.
"There is no doubt on that," she said. "We are not taking a stand back from that."
In fact, McOmber said she came away from the discussions with Schanz and others "with the impression" that the Utah Patients Coalition would maintain its position on Proposition 2 but ease off from "pushing hard to get it passed."
McOmber says she would like to see the ideas arrived at in the negotiations be put forward and scrutinized using the same process that all legislatively drafted bills must go through.
"There were only so many people around the table, right? So others will take a look at it at this point and they'll have input. It's not like it's in a vacuum," she said. "You have two sides that are polar opposites and they come together and they negotiate, but it still goes through the (legislative) process that it goes through at that point."
McOmber and Schanz are hopeful the polices discussed in the agreement come to fruition whether voters pass the initiative in November or not.
In August, a broad coalition of religious and civic organizations and prominent Utahns, including Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and real estate developer and philanthropist Kem Gardner, came out in opposition to Proposition 2.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was at the table in the discussions, was asked Tuesday to comment on the nature of the agreement that was negotiated, but declined to give specifics.
"We are unable to discuss the particulars associated with recent and ongoing talks but at a future date will be happy to comment on the outcomes," Marty Stephens, director of community and government relations for the church, said in a statement.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his organization's role in the talks.
Schanz cautioned that the agreement "is still tentative" and that the sides are "still trying to work out some of the kinks."
But he said that legislators' "buy-in" represents "a huge step in the right direction."
McOmber said that "we believe that we've hammered out the hard parts."
"How do we actually serve patients?" she asked rhetorically. "A lot of those details have been hammered out to make sure it is more of a medical process."
Lawmakers could be called into special session after the election in November to consider the agreement.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Vickers, R-Cedar City, have been the Legislature’s point men in the private talks. Neither returned calls for comment Tuesday.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he wanted to defer to them for any announcement of the agreement, but said legislators and others have worked hard to reach out and find common ground between those for and against Proposition 2.
“I don’t know that we’re totally done,” Adams said.
Discussions about the plan are continuing as lawmakers aim for a special session in November, he said.
“The initiative has serious challenges to it. I think most people recognize that,” Adams said, adding he hopes it fails.
The initiative would “really makes a mess” out of recently passed state laws on terminally ill patients and hemp, he said.