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A.G.'s office responds to court petition seeking referendum on medical marijuana compromise bill

FILE - In this June 21, 2018, file photo, a laboratory manager demonstrates how she uses an instrument to photograph cannabis samples at an analytical laboratory in Oakland, Calif.
FILE - In this June 21, 2018, file photo, a laboratory manager demonstrates how she uses an instrument to photograph cannabis samples at an analytical laboratory in Oakland, Calif.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Attorney General's Office this week responded to a petition filed in state court that calls for a referendum vote on a medical marijuana compromise bill recently passed by state legislators.

The attorney general's office — filing on behalf of Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and Utah director of elections Justin Lee — says in a brief submitted to the Utah Supreme Court that there is "no basis" for accepting the petition's arguments or granting its requests.

"Petitioners' claims either directly contravene relevant constitutional or statutory provisions, or are inadequately briefed, or moot," says the new filing, submitted Wednesday.

The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel also filed a legal brief claiming the plaintiffs lack standing and that the "plain language of the Utah Constitution" contradicts the arguments made in the petition.

On Dec. 10, Steve Maxfield, of Kanosh, Bart Grant, of Monroe, and Daniel Newby, of Taylorsville, submitted a petition for extraordinary writ with the Utah Supreme Court seeking to reverse a decision from Cox's office denying their referendum application.

Cox's office had cited the two-thirds majority by which both the Utah House of Representatives and Senate passed the bill — a margin which, under Article VI Section 1 of the Utah Constitution, exempts it from being repealed by a referendum vote.

"The legal voters of the state of Utah … may … require any law passed by the Legislature, except those laws passed by a two-thirds vote of the members elected to each house of the Legislature, to be submitted to the voters of the state, as provided by statute, before the law may take effect."

The three men's petition also asked the court to overturn the medical marijuana compromise bill in favor of Proposition 2.

Following lengthy private discussions convened by Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, key groups both for and against Proposition 2, including the ballot initiative campaign itself, agreed to support the contents of the compromise bill regardless of the results of the election. It was passed overwhelmingly by the Utah Legislature in early December, mostly along partisan lines.

The compromise makes significant alterations to how Utahns can legally qualify for, buy and consume medical marijuana.

Maxfield said earlier this month that it was his goal to get the state's high court to definitively decide whether or not Utahns have the right to change the government through the initiative or referendum process.

"We either do have the right or we don't. I want them to clarify it," he said.

The legal petition claimed Utah's judicial system currently gives only "lip service" to the "co-equal and superior right of the people" to enact laws.

"The people formed this government and only they can alter, reform or abolish it. Meaningful referendum and initiative powers represent the only non-violent repository the people have in their box as an effective check and balance on a legislature corrupted by special interests," the petition says.

But the briefing filed on behalf of the governor and others Wednesday argues the petition "would elevate voter-approved initiatives to essentially constitutional status where they would remain unamendable and untouchable by normal legislative action."

"This court has repeatedly held that the legislature's and the people's power are co-equal coextensive, concurrent, and share equal dignity," the filing says.

Others have also pursued legal action over the Legislature's passage of the compromise medical marijuana bill. Also this month, Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah, filed a lawsuit in 3rd District Court against Gov. Gary Herbert and Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, seeking to invalidate the legislation.