SALT LAKE CITY — A Republican insider who has met with Rep. Lee Perry says he's confident the lawmaker will come up with a "workable medical marijuana program in the state" and that there is a good chance of it being passed and ultimately dissuading Utahns from voting for an initiative that aims for legalization of medicinal cannabis to a greater extent.
"Lee Perry and some members of the Senate have tried to find something that bridges the gap between (legislation from Rep.) Brad Daw, and perhaps the referendum that is tragically flawed and goes further than most people realize," said Jeremy Roberts, a member of the Utah Republican Party and former secretary for the Utah County GOP.
"There's not an attempt to kill the (initiative)," he said. "The voters are going to do that."
Roberts runs a company called Medical Cannabis Payment Solutions and has been vocally involved in various Utah political issues over the years, including pushing for increased paths to the ballot, raising concerns over the exploitation of Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, and promoting gun safety training.
Perry said Roberts, a longtime friend, is "one of the many people" he has been meeting with "who has a desire to try to figure out what's best for the state of Utah."
"He just feels like there's something he can offer, (that he can) bring to the table some ideas," Perry said of Roberts. "He's sharing some ideas, some things with us."
Roberts told the Deseret News he has spoken with multiple interested legislators in recent months about what would constitute "a reasonable program that has appropriate controls that allows people who are sick to get some therapy."
That discussion has included poring through the legislation in other states and picking policies that make the most sense for Utahns to create a comprehensive idea of what would be in the bill, Roberts said.
"What we did is we kind of picked what we liked," he said.
Perry confirmed to the Deseret News last week that he is considering a bill titled Medical Cannabis Amendments that would create a route to legalization of medicinal cannabis that differs significantly from the ballot initiative.
"I want to talk to people and say: What is an alternative? What is the best (thing) we can come up with?" Perry said at the time.
The representative added Wednesday, "maybe something can be done that isn't as far as the initiative goes."
The bill has so far not been formally drafted.
Roberts claims Sens. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, are among decision-makers who have "been talking about it for a while" and could potentially help sponsor the bill down the road, but both senators pushed back upon hearing that, with Weiler saying, "I have no idea what the bill will say."
"Jeremy Roberts told me that Lee Perry is preparing a bill. It was requested late in the process and likely won't be drafted in time. … I have not agreed to sponsor it in the Senate," Weiler told the Deseret News.
Asked for further clarification about his involvement in prior discussions on medicinal cannabis and whether he's interested in the ideas behind Perry's legislation, Weiler said "it would be fair to say that (Roberts) has expressed an interest in me supporting something."
Bramble likewise insisted he had no inside knowledge of what Perry might put in his legislation, saying he was asked briefly in a meeting with Roberts several weeks ago about whether he thought it was realistic to hope for compromise cannabis legislation, similar to SB54, seeking middle ground with the Count My Vote ballot initiative in 2014. Bramble was the architect of SB54.
"That was more the direction of my discussions with folks making the inquiry. 'Is it possible to do something like that?'" Bramble said, to which he responded, "I don't think that (possibiltiy) exists with the folks promoting medicinal cannabis."
That's because, he said, there have been indications from the medicinal cannabis ballot initiative campaign that "they have no intention of engaging with the Legislature" on a compromise.
"I agree with folks who have concerns about the initiative. That doesn't mean that I have some strategy or that I'm employed in engaging some strategy" for coming up with an alternative, Bramble told the Deseret News.
He noted that he has already agreed to sponsor dozens of House bills but that Perry's is not one of those.
Perry said he had heard from Roberts that it was possible Bramble and Weiler "would be interested in working on something like" his bill, but "I haven't talked to them directly to find that out."
Roberts said he got involved in talking cannabis legislation with Perry because he would like to see a meeting point somewhere between what the initiative proposes and what the Legislature has come up with to this point, which he said is "ultra-conservative."
"I believe that the people in Utah want to have a medical marijuana bill," he said. "I think the people in Utah aren't necessarily getting a lot of good options right now. I got asked to help find a middle ground."
Like Perry and others, Roberts worries that the initiative provides ample backdoor access to "the equivalent of a recreational program."
On the other side of the issue, Roberts called Daw "one of the best men I know," but said his legislation on the issue is "really conservative."
Daw has introduced a package of bills this session that would have the state grow its own full-strength marijuana and allow terminally ill patients the right to try the substance, among other policies.
Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is also pursuing legislation that he has said would regulate the sale of CBD oil and formally allow Utah doctors to recommend it for their patients.
The substance is already sold across the state, though technically federally outlawed, and Vickers has said there are issues regarding a lack of reliable labeling. Qualifying patients can also buy CBD oil with the blessing of state law if they do so while participating in a study on its effects on them.
Roberts said he believes Perry's bill will begin with allowing unfettered access to CBD oil across the board for patients who need it, as well as broad access to cannabis in general for terminally ill patients. In subsequent years, he believes the bill will allow for gradually higher and higher ratios of THC to CBD in the cannabis for which certain patients can qualify.
Roberts doesn't expect Perry's bill would "allow you access to the whole plant" at any point.
Despite Roberts' confident predictions about the bill's contents, Perry warned that none of the text he is mulling over was considered final as of Wednesday.
"He has offered lots of ideas and suggestions. These are all things I'm sure he's talked about with us," Perry said of Roberts. "As far as language goes, I'm still kind of listening to all the input."
Perry said the input he is actively seeking includes the concerns of supporters of the initiative.
Perry also conceded that there are hurdles even getting his bill put together in time to receive legitimate consideration during the session, when ends March 8.
"We have only so many days left in the session, and unless we come up with something really, really good, it's going to be difficult getting something done," Perry said. "It's getting to be closer to crunch time. If its going to happen, we're going to have something (drafted) in the next week or so."
But Roberts is bullish on the bill's chances, saying legislators "know that they need to pass a medical marijuana bill but they haven't been given a good option" before now.
"I think the caucuses are going to love it," he said.
He's also hopeful that Utahns will view it as a better, more moderate option compared to the initiative and ultimately reject that at the ballot box if the bill ultimately passes, despite several robust poll results appearing to bode well for the initiative.
"The state's going to pass its (own) medical marijuana program, and I think the majority of voters are going to say that's what we want," Roberts said.