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Jay Evensen: You'd better be stone cold sober to understand Utah’s medical marijuana plan

FILE - In this April 20, 2018 file photo a customer shops for marijuana at the Exhale Nevada dispensary in Las Vegas. The first full year of legalized marijuana for recreational use in Nevada pushed taxable pot sales past the $500 million mark statewide a
FILE - In this April 20, 2018 file photo a customer shops for marijuana at the Exhale Nevada dispensary in Las Vegas. The first full year of legalized marijuana for recreational use in Nevada pushed taxable pot sales past the $500 million mark statewide and raised nearly $70 million in tax revenue, including $27.5 million for schools.
John Locher, AP

You had better be stone cold sober if you want to understand what’s happening with Utah’s medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 2.

In a few days, Utah voters will receive ballots asking them to vote up or down on this initiative. And yet, at a press conference Thursday, coalitions both for and against it announced they were ready to lay down arms and sing "Kumbaya."

They are joining in support of a compromise — a bill that would change some of the parts that had the Utah Medical Association, law-enforcement officials and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among others, upset.

Voters won’t get to vote on this version. But sometime after Election Day and before Christmas, the governor will call a special legislative session to pass the compromise. At least, that’s the plan.

Voters do still get to have their say on Proposition 2, however. But leaders of the two coalitions have agreed to stop fighting for their cause. Other parties not affiliated with the agreement may still buy ads, but things may become noticeably quiet in your living room and on your car radio leading up to Election Day.

That doesn’t mean one side still won’t want you to vote yes and the other side want you to vote no. Nor does it mean your vote will be entirely meaningless.

The Legislature still is a political body, after all. Even a lame-duck Legislature will keep an eye on how constituents vote on the initiative.

But all sides are promising a special legislative session no matter how you vote.

Any questions?

Amid the looming ballot box confusion, two things may be said with some degree of certainty.

The first is that this ought to serve as a textbook illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of the initiative lawmaking process, something that exists in only 21 states.

When people or interest groups gather signatures to put an initiative on the ballot, voters have little choice but to vote yes or no on someone else’s idea. Normal lawmaking involves public hearings, the give-and-take of competing interests among elected representatives, and compromises. Competing interests get a say and usually win a concession or two.

But when voters approve an initiative, it takes on an air of sanctity that may not be fully deserved. Few lawmakers want to alter “the will of the people.”

On the other hand, the initiative process can force lawmakers to confront subjects they would rather avoid, which seems to be the case here.

The second thing is that Utah, whether the rest of the nation appreciates it or not, is developing a reputation for finding unique solutions to vexing problems. In the rest of the country, this seems to be as rare as a blade of grass on the salt flats. Nationally, political arms are atrophying from an unwillingness to do any heavy lifting.

In 2011, Utah passed a compromise on immigration, allowing guest workers to legally live here. In 2015, the “Utah Compromise” brought leaders of both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the LGTBQ community together on a bill that walked the tight rope between gay rights and religious liberty.

In both cases, political leaders thought they had done something that would serve as a template for the rest of the nation. They underestimated the power of self-interest and fundraising.

Now we have another unique Utah compromise on an issue that ought to have kept all sides benefiting from a firm determination to dig with their heels.

And so, if all goes as planned, up to five licensed dispensaries will exist statewide to sell exact dosages, from tablets to topical oils to gelatin-based cubes and other varieties of cannabinoid products in between. Even unprocessed marijuana flowers will be available in dosages not to exceed one gram.

If passed, the law would contain a list of qualifying illnesses and conditions. Gone would be the initiative’s provisions allowing people to grow their own marijuana if they live more than 100 miles from a dispensary. Gone would be the free samples, local government’s inability to control where dispensaries go and the inevitable confusion between legal and illegal weed.

In would be a help for people who suffer, and general agreement on how that would be done without taking a big step toward recreational marijuana.

It may be confusing at the ballot box, but the outcome, if all goes as planned, would be good.

If only the rest of the nation would pay attention.