clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The money behind Utah's contentious medical marijuana initiative

SALT LAKE CITY — By signature count, it is Utah's most popular ballot initiative, in an election year full of them.

It has overcome formidable regulations on voter-driven initiatives and even an organized signature removal campaign. Polls indicate public opinion in the Beehive State has been fertile ground for its appeal to voters.

But exactly how did the Utah Medical Cannabis Act transform medical marijuana legalization from an idea promoted by a small band of passionate patient advocates at the Utah Legislature into a disruptive force in Utah politics? And what role has money played in forwarding these advocates' cause?

A Deseret News review of the ballot initiative's campaign finance records and interviews with donors found that 1) influential national lobbying group Marijuana Policy Project has had a major financial hand in supporting the signature push, 2) the same group played an important role in the initial drafting of the initiative, 3) the campaign has raised less than almost any other Utah initiative despite its popularity, and 4) the campaign has received hundreds of small donations.

Like everything else attached to this publicly contentious political issue, how to interpret money's role in the medical marijuana initiative depends on whom you ask.

DJ Schanz, director of the initiative campaign, the Utah Patients Coalition, offers a simple explanation for its resonance with voters: Utahns are compassionate, he says, and the prospect of relieving patients' suffering has struck a fundamental chord with them.

"The public is largely committed where they are at on this issue," Schanz said. "People feel comfortable with the idea that medical patients should have access to medical cannabis for very specific medical needs."

But Drug Safe Utah, a group formed in April specifically to oppose the ballot initiative, claims the popularity has come on the back of slick messaging perfected by outsiders interested in seeing the proliferation of permissive recreational marijuana laws around the country.

Walter Plumb, Drug Safe Utah president, claims much of the support for the initiative arises from an imported and misleading strategy of presenting the drug's medical properties as a settled issue.

"This is definitely 'big marijuana,'" Plumb contends. "'Big marijuana is attacking our culture, no question about it. (They are) recognizing that it's an addictive industry (and) their revenues are high because people are high."

Schanz said the phrase "big marijuana" used by opponents is misleading: "We're not getting big money from big marijuana anywhere," he argues, and "the idea that there's all this big money with the medical (marijuana initiative) is a complete farce."

So what is true?

Money breakdown

Public financial disclosure data shows the Utah Patients Coalition raised about $698,000 in direct donations, plus $47,000 worth of in-kind staff time contributed.

Mary Archbold, Utah campaign financial disclosures

Its largest donor is the advocacy nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C., which has given more than $218,000 directly and also contributed all of the staff time that was donated to the campaign. (Donation figures in this story are up to date through June 14.)

Other big donors outside Utah are comprised of a political campaign firm, a libertarian advocacy group, and a body and home care business.

The campaign's largest in-state donor has been the Lehi-headquartered Libertas Institute, a libertarian lobbying and advocacy group that has given $135,000.

Campaign financial disclosures also show the Utah Patients Coalition received about 390 contributions of $100 or less for a total of about $11,400. Several dozen contributions from individual Utah residents exceeded $100, including seven that were $1,000 or more.

Chief among those is Linda Fontenot, listed at a residential Salt Lake City address, who has donated $40,000 total via four separate payments. Fontenot declined to comment about her lucrative support of the initiative.

Inside the state, the other big financial contributions came from a relatively unknown nonprofit dedicated to filming pro-initiative testimonials, as well a group of Utahns who gave to an Arizona-headquartered organization used to donate on behalf of individuals who didn't want to publicly release their names.

Worker Emma Caron, of Hopedale, Mass., weighs and prepares medicinal cannabis cigarettes Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.
Worker Emma Caron, of Hopedale, Mass., weighs and prepares medicinal cannabis cigarettes Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

BYU political science professor David Magleby, who has published several works on campaign finance, said the out-of-state funds from Marijuana Policy Project and others are not surprising, nor is the total amount having been spent on the campaign so far.

"That's very typical in a state that's hard to qualify in," such as Utah, Magleby said. "It takes big bucks (to get on the ballot). … You have to have something approaching that kind of money."

Magleby added that "the fact that so many states have already voted on it, I think minimizes … national (money)."

Magleby also believes the campaign has "got to raise quite a bit more" in the fall to keep up its favorable numbers, as opposing groups such as Drug Safe Utah also ramp up their messaging criticizing the initiative.

Schanz said despite his efforts, businesses that can benefit from the sale of marijuana have almost exclusively flocked to supporting law changes or otherwise investing in states larger than Utah — particularly California, where recreational marijuana use was recently legalized.

"None of them see this medical program (in Utah) as anything financially lucrative whatsoever," he said.

In this July 12, 2018 file photo, head grower Mark Vlahos tends to cannabis plants at Sira Naturals, a medical marijuana cultivation facility, in Milford, Mass.
In this July 12, 2018 file photo, head grower Mark Vlahos tends to cannabis plants at Sira Naturals, a medical marijuana cultivation facility, in Milford, Mass.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

Initiative comparison

The amount of money raised to get enough signatures for the medical marijuana initiative was low compared to the other measures being sought in the state, campaign finance records show.

The $744,827 in combined direct and in-kind contributions raised by the Utah Patients Coalition is only a little more than half of the more than $1.4 million brought in by anti-gerrymandering campaign Better Boundaries, and less than one-third of the nearly $2.6 million raised by Medicaid expansion campaign Utah Decides Healthcare, with more than $2 million in help from the Fairness Project, based in Washington, D.C.

In this June 21, 2018, file photo, a laboratory manager holds a cannabis sample in Oakland, Calif.
In this June 21, 2018, file photo, a laboratory manager holds a cannabis sample in Oakland, Calif.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Count My Vote, an initiative campaign that sought to preserve the dual path to the primary ballot via either signature gathering or the caucus convention system and which was ultimately defeated by a signature removal campaign, brought in about $1.35 million in contributions.

Even the Our Schools Now campaign had spent more than medical marijuana advocates, bringing in more than $1.1 million by the time its officials ceased their signature gathering efforts in March in a compromise with state lawmakers over education funding.

Keep My Voice, an initiative campaign seeking to preserve the caucus and convention system as candidates' only path to the ballot, was the only major initiative that raised less than the Utah Patients Coalition. Keep My Voice raised about $495,000, but didn't get enough signatures to put its issue before voters.

But despite its low overall spending, the Utah Patients Coalition stood king among Utah's initiatives in the signature gathering phase, getting more signatures than any other measure.

"We've run this campaign on a bootstrap (budget), on literally tens of thousands of volunteer hours, which I think has demonstrated the public's interest and willingness to make this happen," Schanz said.

The biggest donor

Plumb takes issue with the Marijuana Policy Project's strong involvement in the campaign, saying the Washington, D.C.-based group's game plan nationally has been focused on how to "use the gullible media and legislators," or voters directly where necessary, to further a cause those audiences haven't researched for themselves and don't understand.

In Utah, Plumb said, the national group's strategy with donating $218,000 is "based on the compassion of Utah, that we want to help people." But, he asks, "what's the social cost?"

"More availability means more usage and honestly, I don't think Utah voters … understand that this is really a whole new system of distribution," he said, leading to a major influx of dispensaries in a newly opened market. "We don't use Rite Aid, we don't use Walgreens."

Plumb and the Utah Medical Association have each argued that giving patients marijuana through a dispensary is playing fast and loose with a potent substance, skipping the pharmaceutical safeguards required for the distribution of other drugs.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who has sponsored bills allowing terminally ill patients to try cannabis and permitting the growing of the substance in Utah, but has not seen eye to eye with the aims of the initiative or its supporters, has lamented at various times this year that he and others who argue against the measure face a steep financial disadvantage.

Mark Vlahos, head grower at Sira Naturals Inc., Mark, left obscured behind plant tray, and Michael Dundas, right, the company's CEO, examine cannabis plants on Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford
Mark Vlahos, head grower at Sira Naturals Inc., Mark, left obscured behind plant tray, and Michael Dundas, right, the company's CEO, examine cannabis plants on Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

"They've got everything to gain by (promoting the initiative) and nothing to lose," Daw said of Marijuana Policy Project.

Daw also said it's "crystal clear" that "full legalization of full recreational marijuana" is that group's long-term goal.

The executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project was candid about having had a hand in helping the initiative campaign in Utah establish itself.

Matthew Schweich told the Deseret News the group "played a key role in" the drafting of the initiative. He was quick to add, though, that "the drafting process … was almost entirely comprised of Utahns."

Marijuana Policy Project also assisted the campaign with signature gathering in a "collaborative effort," Schweich noted. About $47,000 in in-kind staff hours provided by Marijuana Policy Project are also listed in public campaign documents.

Still, Schweich said, "A significant portion of the funding has already come from in the state, so right off the bat I have to contest the (assertion) that this has been an out-of-state effort."

"Poll after poll shows support above 70 percent, so we're not coming into a state forcing a policy that the people disagree with," he said. "(This was) after years of efforts to get the legislation to do something for these patients to change the law so that patients are no longer treated like criminals. … Now we're going to give the people the opportunity to take this matter into their own hands."

The polls

Utah voters' support of the initiative hovered between 75 and 77 percent in three polls commissioned by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and Salt Lake Tribune released between July 2017 and January 2018.

That support remained strong but appeared to dip noticeably in a June poll commissioned by those same organizations in which 66 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the measure.

Those polls asked Utah voters, "Do you support or oppose a proposed ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana use for people with serious medical conditions?"

A pair of separate Utah Policy polls asked Utah voters whether they support "legalizing doctor-prescribed use of non-smoking medical marijuana for certain diseases and pain relief," to which 73 percent of respondents answered yes in November and 77 percent did the same in February.

The initiative's supporters and detractors disagree on whether that question is accurate enough to fairly gauge support for the measure itself.

Schweich said the Marijuana Policy Project has found that state ballot initiatives are "a very effective way to change laws."

"We are always looking at state levels for reform efforts, and that's why we're working in Utah," he said.

Marijuana Policy Project is also putting its support behind a ballot proposal in Michigan that would legalize the use of marijuana for recreation, Schweich said. The nonprofit says in its vision statement that it would like to see marijuana "legally regulated similarly to alcohol."

Libertas ties

Libertas Institute — along with Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education — was where advocates' pro-medical marijuana leanings incubated into political will at the Utah Legislature in recent years, getting lawmakers to debate the merits of various legalization bills, the most extensive of which have failed to pass.

It is also the campaign's largest Utah donor, having contributed $135,000.

Schanz is officially the vice president at Libertas but has taken a leave of absence from the organization for the past year and a half to focus on directing the Utah Patients Coalition Campaign.

Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, said the group permitted Schanz to take his leave as a way of being especially careful not to cross ethical or legal lines relating to promoting the initiative.

"This is an issue that when we were working on it legislatively, DJ was great support up at the Capitol (in) working with legislators and … patient groups," Boyack said. "He's now working on it in a different context, but for obvious legal and financial reasons, that work has to be done through a separate organization."

Libertas Institute is eager to support the Utah Patients Coalition financially, Boyack said, because federal laws prohibiting all marijuana use are "to us a matter of injustice and cruelty, to subject patients to the criminal justice system."

"We've been working hard on this issue for several years, and have largely failed to find enough support in the Legislature to get the law changed in any substantive way," he said.

Other non-Utah donors

Besides the Marijuana Policy Project, the Utah Patients Coalition's significant out-of-state financial backers are an organic body and home care company, another libertarian advocacy group, and a campaign consulting firm.

The three groups explained why they put some skin in the Utah game.

• Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps — which sells all-purpose cleaning products and other household items — is outspoken on social causes it supports and in recent years has contributed to campaigns in several states seeking various marijuana reform laws, including measures seeking to legalize recreational use.

The company based in Vista, California, contributed $50,000 to the Utah Patients Coalition in January.

Some Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps products contain hemp seed oil, but the business doesn't sell any recreational or medical marijuana products, says company CEO David Bronner.

The company believes in supporting ballot initiatives as "the most democratic way of reflecting the people's will" when "inertia or political hazards" stall state lawmakers, Bronner told the Deseret News.

"Oftentimes on more controversial issues … it's easier for them to do nothing," Bronner said of state lawmakers generally.

Bronner says the initiative succeeding in Utah would validate the company's conviction that marijuana policy reform is "not all about left-leaning (states), but this issue has … support across the political spectrum."

Bronner said that while his company favors legalizing recreational marijuana use "in a carefully regulated way," it also enthusiastically supports efforts to advance the "narrow issue of medical cannabis."

• DKT Liberty Project, a libertarian advocacy organization based in Washington D.C., describes itself as a group that "advocates vigilance over regulation of all kinds."

In a pair of donations that came in February and then May of this year, DKT Liberty Project gave $35,000 to the Utah Patients Coalition.

"The DKT Liberty Project has donated to the Utah medical cannabis campaign because we strongly believe that Utah patients and professional caregivers should no longer be treated as criminals," AC Bushnell, the project's program director, said in a prepared statement.

"We have great confidence in the Utah Patients Coalition as they work toward victory on Election Day, and we're proud to help support their important work."

• September Group, located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is a campaign consulting firm that has served Utah clients such as Rep. Mia Love, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee.

Clients pay September Group for any of a broad range of services that include polling, crisis management, market research and policy analysis, the firm says.

Last fall, the firm donated $10,000 to the Utah Patients Coalition campaign.

The group also plans to throw additional financial support behind the medical marijuana ballot initiative this coming fall, said Chuck Warren, managing director of September Group.

Warren said he and others at the firm believe people "deserve the opportunity to try" marijuana for medical purposes "in consultation with their doctors." He stressed that "we as a firm are completely opposed to recreational drugs or marijuana," but hold the belief that its medical use could help fight the scourge of opioid addiction in the United States.

Though the group gets paid for political activities, it's "not an odd circumstance" for the group to flip the script and "donate … to various public policy issues," Warren told the Deseret News.

"We don't have any financial gain in the outcome of this — we're not opening dispensaries," but rather the initiative aligns with the firm's values, Warren went on to say.

September Group also employs Alex Iorg, a campaign manager for the Utah Patients Coalition, though Iorg has taken a leave of absence from the consulting firm to work on the initiative. It is also the workplace of Hillary Koellner, who oversees a Utah nonprofit, Our Story, which is a significant donor to the campaign.

"(Iorg and Koellner) weren't influential at all in my decision or giving. I respect both of them greatly — we just happen to think alike as everybody does in the office on this issue," Warren said. "We think it's a very compassionate issue to help people, if done properly."

Utah donors

• Our Story has donated substantially to the Utah Patients Coalition, giving a total of $124,000 to the campaign, including a $49,000 transfer in February.

The organization registered as a nonprofit in Utah in October of last year, according to a state database. In campaign finance documents, it is listed with a Murray address.

On social media, where Our Story has about 15,900 Facebook followers, the sole political focus of the group is its support of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act.

An Our Story GoFundMe page that has raised a few hundred dollars for the initiative campaign implores visitors: "With just a $5 donation, you can help get the solution and medicine that so many Utah families need."

The organization's website (whose domain name recently expired) and Facebook page include videos "paid for and authorized" by Our Story and show messages from Utahns who support the initiative, including Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne and Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education founder Christine Stenquist.

"It's just something we wanted to create because there are so many people suffering," she said. "That's really the gist of it. We wanted to tell people's stories and show the humane side of it."

Those videos have helped lead to donations via Our Story by those sympathetic to the issue, Koellner told the Deseret News.

• Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment contributed a total of $49,000 to the Utah Patients Coalition in 2017. It hasn't donated in 2018.

In campaign finance disclosure records, Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment's physical address is listed as a P.O. Box at a UPS store in Murray, but the Deseret News could not find any other records showing instances of it operating directly in Utah.

Warren said the organization is an Arizona-headquartered nonprofit that serves as a donation "vehicle" to which he and his colleagues refer active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who support the initiative and want to contribute to it, but have reservations about publicly putting their name to their donation "on such a sensitive issue."

Those individuals' contributions are what make up Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment's contribution to the initiative campaign, according to Warren, though he said it has been in existence for several years and served as a means for supporting different campaign issues in the past.

Pass the Balanced the Budget Amendment is formally organized in Arizona, Warren said, but the initiative "donors were Utahns." Arizona records show the group was first established in 2011.

The LDS Church has expressed reservations about the issue of medical marijuana legalization. The church said in a statement in May that an extensive legal analysis it commissioned "raises grave concerns about this initiative and the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted."

"We invite all to read the (analysis) and to make their own judgment," the church said in its statement at the time.

Opposition funding

Plumb's dedication to opposing marijuana use has a long history.

Plumb — a real estate developer, the owner of Riverton-headquartered nutritional product business Pharmics, and former law partner to Hatch — says he became concerned about marijuana use among teenagers beginning long ago in his work with youth in a religious capacity. In 1998, he authored a pamphlet sent to tens of thousands of Salt Lake County parents, warning them about the pitfalls their children could face by using marijuana.

The Deseret News reported at the time that the pamphlet "ruffled some feathers" in the county over its excerpt asserting that "excessive preoccupation with social causes, race relations, environmental issues, etc." are signs a person uses marijuana. Plumb told the Deseret News recently that his critics at the time took issue with that language because they didn't want to "admit what the real issues are."

Among the most important of such issues, he argues, are the effects on the cognitive development of young people who use marijuana.

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind … that it affects adolescent minds," Plumb said. "They're still developing."

With that worry prompting him to action, Plumb said, he formed Drug Safe Utah in April, and has since donated about $112,000 of his own money to it in order to fund its opposition to the ballot initiative.

The Utah Medical Association, known for its outspoken opposition to the initiative, has also given $10,000 in in-kind contributions, plus a $500 donation. But Drug Safe Utah remains badly outspent by its opponents by roughly six times over in total.

That will change soon, Plumb said — possibly this month.

"It's going to take a lot more money and right now we're putting together a group to assist with that," he said.

The group and its backers "will become more vocal as we get closer" to the election, he said. "We're just going into a new stage."

"When people understand what is in this initiative, they're going to vote against it," Plumb said.

Despite Drug Safe Utah's late arrival in the fight, Magleby says it still has the opportunity to resonate with voters if it can put up sufficient money. Magleby said advertising dollars for a "no" campaign against an initiative are generally "more effective than dollars on the 'yes' side."

"There is a kind of a status quo orientation in most voters when they're presented reasons to doubt a measure," Magleby said.

Fewer voters generally have their minds made up well in advance when it comes to ballot initiatives as compared to individual candidates, Magleby added, "and therefore advertising … can be more consequential" than in a traditional campaign.

Plumb declined to comment on specifically what groups might be adding more funding to Drug Safe Utah. Reached for comment, Utah Medical Association spokesman Mark Fotheringham said he was not privy to "any plans for UMA to contribute anything other than expertise" in its opposition to the initiative.