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Special legislative session on medical marijuana could be called in November

FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2016 file photo, workers harvest marijuana plants in a rural area near Corvallis, Ore.
FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2016 file photo, workers harvest marijuana plants in a rural area near Corvallis, Ore.
Andrew Selsky, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — There's renewed talk of holding a special legislative session on medical marijuana, likely after voters decide in November whether or not to pass a ballot initiative legalizing its widespread use by patients.

But Gov. Gary Herbert is not ready to call lawmakers into special session to consider expanding legislation passed earlier this year allowing the terminally ill to use marijuana grown in the state.

"The idea was floated for all of a couple of minutes," the governor's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said. "He expressed no opinion about it. He was interested in hearing some of the ideas that are being shared."

FILE - In this Thursday, July 12, 2018 file photo, a newly-transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in pots at a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Massachusetts.
FILE - In this Thursday, July 12, 2018 file photo, a newly-transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in pots at a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Massachusetts.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

Edwards said the brief discussion came during a Monday evening meeting between Herbert and members of his staff, who have heard from lawmakers "floating some trial balloons" about possible special session legislation.

Herbert is headed on a trade mission to South Korea followed by a trip to Washington, D.C., so a more in-depth discussion about session prior to the 2019 Legislature will have to wait until his return on Sept. 27, Edwards said.

"This has not been part of the governor's plan," he said. "He's always interested in hearing consensus recommendations from the Legislature. We'll look closely at what makes the best sense for good marijuana policy in the state."

Late last month, Herbert pledged to use his office's "bully pulpit" to ensure lawmakers take action on medical marijuana no matters what happens with Proposition 2, the initiative to legalize its use.

The governor said while he will vote against the ballot measure, he intends to help lawmakers reach a compromise on a "common-sense position" that would permit marijuana to be used to relieve pain and suffering, but not recreationally.

DJ Schanz, director for the Utah Patients Coalition political issues committee behind Proposition 2, said there has been talk for months about a special session on medical marijuana.

"There's nothing new about any of this," Schanz said. "We've known from the very beginning of this process that the Legislature has the ability to change, modify or undermine the initiative."

But Schanz said some "tightening up" by lawmakers may be acceptable. "They're going to do what they're going to do. We feel like we have a highly regulated, conservative approach to medical cannabis in the state," he said.

It's not clear how much support there is among lawmakers for a special session.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who is not running for re-election this year, said he has "not had any conversations with the governor and there are no plans for a special session."

Amid reports that a special session could come as soon as next month, Hughes said that "over the years, there have been more rumors of special sessions than there have been actual special sessions called by the governor. This year is no exception."

Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was more optimistic.

"I personally would like to see a special session in November," said Adams, who is running for Senate president. Adams said the Senate's GOP majority still need to discuss the issue but their next caucus won't be until the October interim meetings.

"I'm very adamant in favor of trying to do something," he said. "I think the Legislature, there's no secret about it, will do a better job. There's real flaws in the initiative."

But Adams said he was concerned about the impact on the election.

"I don't want to upstage the initiative process," he said. "We don't want to make a political decision."

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, has already opened a "Medical Marijuana Modifications" bill file for the 2019 Legislature to address "problematic aspects" of Proposition 2 if it passes, or to enact "meaningful" legislation if it fails.

King said holding a special session before the November election is "a stupid idea" that would appear to voters as an attempt by lawmakers to preempt their will at the ballot box.

Lawmakers "ought to have the decency, have the respect for the process, to let this go forward," the Democratic leader said. "I'm frustrated by this kind of talk. I just think it's ridiculous."

Although he didn't feel as strongly about holding a special session after the election, King said he'd rather wait until the 2019 Legislature begins meeting in late January to deal with the issue.

"I'm not sure you can quickly come up with a consensus that I would feel comfortable with just a week or two after the vote," King said. "There are a lot of moving parts here."

Still, he said, if voters don't pass Proposition 2, it may be difficult to get a majority of lawmakers to agree on the best way to move forward on legalizing medical marijuana.

A coalition of religious, civic, business and law enforcement officials, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have come out against the ballot initiative.

Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Utah Area of the church, sent an email to church members urging them to vote against Proposition 2.

Members were also asked in the email to join "in a call to state elected officials to promptly work with medical experts, patients and community leaders to find a solution that will work for all Utahns, without the harmful effects that will come to pass if Proposition 2 becomes law."