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Salt Lake County's top prosecutor lends support to medical marijuana initiative

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Tuesday came out in strong support of the medical marijuana initiative that advocates are seeking to put on the statewide ballot in November.

"I will be voting in favor of this initiative in November," Gill told reporters at a Tuesday press conference at the Capitol held jointly with other legalization advocates, including Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education.

Gill said he disagrees with characterizations from opponents of the initiative, including the Utah Medical Association, who have said the bill allows for de facto recreational use of marijuana.

"This is not about recreational marijuana, that is not what I support, but I will advocate for not criminalizing the conduct of parents, patients and family members for an act of compassion," Gill said.

Gill is taking a stance that breaks with the position offered by the state Department of Public Safety, which says in a statement on its website that its leaders have "preliminary concerns regarding a more broadly defined medical use of marijuana in our state and the negative impact it could have on public safety."

Gill's position is also in marked contrast to that of the Drug Enforcement Administration Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force, which is listed in public records as an organization associated with Drug Safe Utah, a political issues committee formed late last month in direct opposition to the initiative.

Already at the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, "we certainly try to be compassionate as prosecutors to address that issue" of parents who are seeking marijuana as a method of treating their children, Gill said.

"As a public prosecutor the last thing I want to be doing is be in the middle of a conversation between a patient and their physician," he said. "They should not have to worry about the specter of criminal prosecution for an act of compassion."

But he said "those living in other jurisdictions may not get the (same) benefit."

"There are probably one or two other (district attorneys in Utah) who might be supportive of it, but as an organization they haven't taken a position, or taken a position a little different than what (we are) taking," Gill said.

The ballot initiative Gill supports, spearheaded by a campaign group called the Utah Patients Coalition, would allow patients with certain conditions — including Alzheimer's disease, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and HIV — to apply for a card allowing them to legally possess marijuana for medical use.

Anger over canvassers

The Utah Medical Association has long been critical of the initiative, claiming there is not robust enough research into marijuana's medical properties to allow doctors to prescribe it with predictability, that the initiative allows overly broad access that paves the way for recreational use, and that enforcing the law against recreational users would become impractical.

The Utah Patients Coalition has hit back, accusing the association of fear-mongering and ignoring existing research into marijuana's medical properties.

On April 27, the Utah Medical Association and conservative advocacy group Utah Eagle Forum formed Drug Safe Utah.

The initiative has secured enough petition signatures statewide and in the required number of state Senate districts in order to qualify for the ballot, pending certification by the lieutenant governor's office. However, those who signed the petition are able to remove their signatures up until May 15.

The group is engaged in a signature removal process, Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McComber confirmed last week.

"Our whole goal is just to talk to people ... who have said, 'I didn't know that was in the initiative,'" McComber said at the time.

Christine Stenquist, president of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, said Tuesday that she and other legalization supporters can "see firsthand the deception" of the removal campaign, which she said contains "blatant lies" about what's in the initiative.

Stenquist cited a surreptitiously recorded video taken in Washington County showing a woman trying to convince someone who signed the petition to remove their signature.

At one point, the woman can be heard claiming that the Utah Medical Association had helped put together a medical marijuana initiative that had later been distorted and should no longer be supported. She also at one point claims to be there on behalf of the county clerk's office.

Stenquist criticized the video in a release Monday, saying it was "simply filled with fanciful confabulations, outright untruths and attempts to manipulate the person being visited." She called it "a powerful indictment of this appalling nullification campaign, which needs to cease immediately."

However, Utah Medical Association spokesman Mark Fotheringham said Tuesday that the organization has inquired into the identity of the canvasser and concluded that "we think she's rogue out there on her own" and doesn't have "anything to do with" Drug Safe Utah.

"Her rambling incoherent statements have nothing to do with the talking points (Drug Safe Utah) has supplied to legitimate field workers," Fotheringham added in an email.

Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education said in its release Monday that it "urges relevant authorities to suspend (Drug Safe Utah's) campaign at once while the whole program is investigated."