SALT LAKE CITY — Following more than a year of a seemingly insurmountable divide and sometimes embittered debate over the future of medical marijuana in Utah, several key players announced a comprehensive compromise on the issue Thursday which they hope to get passed into law.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called for a special session of the Utah Legislature following the election in November to discuss a new "shared vision" for medical cannabis policy.
LIVE: Marijuana initiative press conference at Capitol
Gov. Herbert and opposing sides of the marijuana initiative are announcing a 'shared vision' at press conferencePosted by KSL 5 TV on Thursday, October 4, 2018
The Deseret News first reported the agreement Tuesday following recent private talks involving legislative leaders and others. Herbert formally announced that compromise Thursday, flanked at the state Capitol by legislators and the very groups that have been so sharply at odds over the merits of Proposition 2.
Proposition 2 remains on the ballot and cannot be amended before Election Day. In November, voters will have a chance to say yes or no to the measure as it currently stands.
Those for and against the initiative continue to disagree on whether Proposition 2 should pass, but suggested that regardless of the Election Day results, the policies agreed to as part of a wide-ranging compromise should ultimately be passed by the Legislature in the special session.
Hebert confirmed the special session will be held regardless of whether Proposition 2 is passed by voters.
"Whether it passes or fails, we're going to arrive at the same point and conclusion, which is going to be (of) benefit to the people of Utah," the governor said.
Leaders of both the House and the Senate said they believe they have the votes to pass the compromise in the special session.
The Utah Patients Coalition also announced Thursday it would no longer purchase media advertisements promoting Proposition 2, though it still favors the measure passing. On the other side of the issue, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Utah Medical Association said they would do the same and not actively fight for its defeat, despite remaining opposed to it.
Others present to support Thursday's announcement included Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, the initiative campaign's largest in-state donor; the Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah; and Mark Madsen, a medical marijuana advocate and a former state senator who sponsored a failed legalization bill in the Utah Legislature in 2016.
Among the proposed compromise policies, which were written in the form of a bill, are changes to Proposition 2's provisions over how medical marijuana can be ingested, where and how it would be sold, and what is considered a qualifying condition for a medical cannabis card.
The compromise language limits the forms in which a person can use medical marijuana to a tablet, capsule, concentrated oil, liquid suspension, topical substance, skin patch, sublingual pill, chewable or dissolvable cube, or unprocessed marijuana flower broken up into a blister pack in which each blister, or pocket, does not exceed 1 gram. In limited circumstances, a marijuana resin or wax could also be used.
Each of those methods of treatment would be required to be broken up into "single dosage form" and contain "a specific and consistent … content."
Unlike with the compromise language, Proposition 2 doesn't require unprocessed flower be sold in a blister pack. Marijuana edibles could also be sold under Proposition 2, but not under the compromise language.
The compromise text does not allow for a person to grow their own plants for personal use. Proposition 2, by contrast, permits a person to grow up to six of their own plants if they live more than 100 miles from a dispensary.
Also under the compromise, marijuana sellers would be known as pharmacies rather than dispensaries, and a licensed pharmacist would be required to work at the facility.
A single state-owned central fill pharmacy would be established and local health departments would be utilized as places where a medical marijuana order could be picked up. Five pharmacies would be permitted statewide, unless unforeseen demand arises. By contrast, Proposition 2 would allow for at least one in every county and more for the most populous counties, including up to eight in Salt Lake County.
The compromise text also makes small changes to qualifying conditions that allow a person to get a medical cannabis card, specifying that a person's post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis must come from a psychiatrist, for example.
The compromise language keeps protections barring landlords from penalizing or removing a tenant for lawfully using medical marijuana, and keeps protections for doctors who recommend its use — provisions that had drawn ire in a recent lawsuit filed by Drug Safe Utah, a political issues committee formed to defeat Proposition 2.
The compromise text also proposes that doctors who wish to recommend cannabis, and the pharmacists who would dispense it, be required to comply with certain continuing education requirements.
Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, which has long been critical of the proposition, said Thursday the association has "stepped back" since the compromise was reached and "won't do media buys" campaigning against Proposition 2. However, McOmber said the organization's position has not changed that the initiative should not be passed.
Some advertisements the association has already purchased will still run, she said.
"We believe (the compromise) has addressed most of the medical community's concerns," McOmber said.
DJ Schanz, director of the Proposition 2 medical marijuana legalization initiative campaign called the Utah Patients Coalition, said he would still like to see Proposition 2 pass in order to "send a message" that Utahns "stand with patients."
But "as far as the framework and concepts, those are ironed out," Schanz said, adding that the Utah Patients Coalition will also refrain from purchasing advertisements pushing for the proposition.
"We're committed to de-escalating any media buys," Schanz said.
Elder Jack N. Gerard, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has helped spearhead the church's efforts urging Utahns to vote no on Proposition 2 while also pushing the state to legalize medical marijuana under certain stricter conditions, made the same commitment.
"While the church remains opposed to Proposition 2, and we've encouraged folks to vote against it … in the same spirit expressed by (Schanz), we'll de-escalate our activities in opposition to Proposition 2," Elder Gerard said.
Elder Gerard said the compromise "creates a framework that is good for patients, their caregivers, it was good for children."
Jim Jardine, advisor for Drug Safe Utah, said he was not yet sure whether the political issues committee will also stop advertisements against the measure. He said "there are members in our coalition who may want to press forward," and there is an understandable hesitation "to slow down until you know there's a deal."
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he wanted to get different sides of the issue to the same table after he recently "heard a lot of what I thought (was) a lot of overlap" from opposing groups.
With that mindset, Hughes first brought those groups together for private talks last month. Those involved included The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, Libertas Institute, the Utah Medical Association, and the governor's office.
"If we could find that common ground, we could grow from there. So we did. We went through this exercise and it was slow going," Hughes said.
Hughes said the group quickly learned to put compromises in statutory language in order to be absolutely sure they were in agreement on certain points.
Still, Hughes said the agreement is "not necessarily going to make everyone happy."
"(But) to the families, to the patients, to those that we represent, to those that we advocate for, I think we're trying to strike a strong middle ground," he said.
Elder Gerard praised Hughes "for bringing us together."
Boyack praised the long process that led to a compromise, as well as the result, saying that "during over 40 hours of these discussions we found common ground."
"Patient access is preserved while resolving opponents' concerns about the potential misuse of cannabis," Boyack said.
Madsen, the former state senator whose effort to legalize medical marijuana fell short, said he felt "compelled to express my hurt and frustration" at other stakeholders' "refusal to sit and reason together for years while patient suffered."
But Madsen said "Utah politics will have improved for having gone through this experience."
Hughes and Niederhauser both said they are confident they have the necessary votes in their legislative bodies to get the agreed-upon compromise passed in November.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who has been heavily involved in Utah medical marijuana legislation, said the doctors he has spoken to in the House of Representatives are "ecstatic" about the compromise, and that he expects the rest of the House will follow their lead.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that helped draft Proposition 2 and the campaign's most lucrative donor, said in a statement "this deal is undoubtedly a victory for Utah patients and their families."
Criticisms of deal
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News she is frustrated with the deal after so many Utahns agreed to what was in Proposition 2. She sees the compromise as "a form of voter suppression" subverting the will of those who signed it.
"People have worked so hard to get this on the ballot," Romero said.
Christine Stenquist, the founder of the patient group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, told the Deseret News "we're just skeptical, and we need time to look at the 128 pages."
"There are trust issues that remain with this legislative body," Stenquist said, and as a result she believes supporters should not forfeit the leverage they have over state lawmakers by failing to pass Proposition 2.
"I don't think they should give up their power just because of a promise," she said.
Walter Plumb, president of Drug Safe Utah, said he was disappointed with the compromise, but that within the coalition of organizations who have opposed Proposition 2, "I appear to be in the minority right now."
"I still say this is just the first step toward the real goal of recreational marijuana," Plumb said, clarifying that he was speaking only for himself.