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Two sides in talks over medical marijuana proposition, but conflicts remain

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The pro Proposition 2 Utah Patients Coalition is in talks with state legislators and others over potential modifications to the medical marijuana proposition that might be considered if the initiative passes. But some advocates say they are being left out

The pro Proposition 2 Utah Patients Coalition is in talks with state legislators and others over potential modifications to the medical marijuana proposition that might be considered if the initiative passes. But some advocates say they are being left out of the conversation.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The pro Proposition 2 Utah Patients Coalition is in talks with state legislators and others over potential modifications to the medical marijuana proposition that might be considered if the initiative passes. But some advocates say they are being left out of the conversation.

The aspects of the measure that are being talked about include "some of the triggers we had in the proposition to make sure the medical cannabis program was implemented," said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition.

According to Schanz, those triggers include provisions which allow a person 100 miles or more away from a dispensary to grow their own marijuana plants, as well as the legal "affirmative defense" for a person found with marijuana before July 1, 2020, who can show they would have been eligible for a medical cannabis card despite not having one.

Opponents of the proposition, which include medical, civic and law enforcement officials, have pointed to those provisions, among others, as reasons to defeat the measure. Schanz did not divulge specifically what about those provisions is being discussed.

House Speaker Greg Hughes has been involved in the talks over potential adjustments to Proposition 2, Hughes' office confirmed. According to Schanz, the Utah Senate has also had representation in the talks, as has the Libertas Institute, which is the initiative's largest in-state donor.

Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser and Libertas President Connor Boyack did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

An important part of the conversation with legislators, Schanz said, is ensuring that in any scenario the state is held accountable for implementing core medical marijuana program tenets promptly and adequately.

He added he is negotiating "with the assumption the ballot initiative will pass."

Schanz cautioned that "there's nothing that's been agreed upon" in the talks. Schanz said there is no "specific timeline" for bringing them to a close.

Asked if he would entertain any compromise scenario in which the campaign walks away from Proposition 2, he said, "No, absolutely not."

Opponents of the measure have said the initiative's regulations are too loose, particularly the one allowing personally grown marijuana for people more than 100 miles from a dispensary, and would lead to recreational use. They want the measure defeated and have asked the Utah Legislature to craft legislation supporting the medical use of marijuana for those in need, but with safeguards protecting the citizenry from those who would abuse it.

Both sides are at the negotiating table to see if compromises can be reached.

But not everyone is happy with the talks. Advocates with Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) said the Utah Patients Coalition and legislators have shut them out of the talks on the future of medical marijuana in Utah. Leaving the organization out is an affront to the patients it represents, said founder Christine Stenquist.

"We were kept in the dark for weeks that this was even happening," Stenquist told the Deseret News. "I feel a sense of betrayal to the patients."

The group has worked with the Utah Patients Coalition side-by-side in campaigning for Proposition 2 and speaking out against the efforts to defeat it.

But Stenquist said Thursday she believes the Utah Patients Coalition is now "trying to negotiate and weaken" the contents of the initiative.

Knowing that the Utah Legislature can change the measure if it passes, Schanz responded, he is trying to be a voice at that table in discussing what those changes could look like.

"We've known all along … that legislators can change or modify this initiative once it passes," Schanz told the Deseret News. "We're talking with these folks to see what changes can be made that are acceptable to supporters of Proposition 2 and the legislative bodies."

Proposition 2 would allow people with certain illnesses or conditions to qualify for a medical cannabis card and purchase marijuana or marijuana products at a dispensary.

In August, Boyack told the Health and Human Services Interim Committee he was not opposed to lawmakers tweaking implementation details of an approved initiative.

"(We are) more open than ever to say we recognize the Legislature has an interest in making sure appropriate safeguards are in place," assuming a good faith effort to ensure "the core of what the public has passed is being enacted," Boyack said at the time.

Earlier in September, Gov. Gary Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said Herbert had heard from some legislators "floating some trial balloons" about a possible special legislative session on the topic of marijuana, likely after the November election.

"The idea was floated for all of a couple of minutes," Edwards cautioned at the time. "(The governor) expressed no opinion about it. He was interested in hearing some of the ideas that are being shared."

Hughes said at the time that he had "not had any conversations with the governor and there are no plans for a special session."

Schanz said Friday he had no new insight as to whether legislators would decide to call a marijuana-focused special session later this year.

Others confirm talks

Utah Medical Association's Michelle McComber confirmed her organization is "working on something and have been invited to participate by the Speaker and others," but declined to comment further.

The association, one of the earliest and most ardent opponents of Proposition 2, has argued multiple times the strength of existing medical marijuana research, and the reliability with which doctors can prescribe it, are both significantly overstated.

Marty Stephens, director of community and government relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the Deseret News that "at the invitation of the Speaker of the House, the church is participating with a number of other groups and organizations regarding medical cannabis."

The church opposes Proposition 2, contending that it lacks adequate safeguards against improper marijuana access and use, but says it is supportive of medical marijuana under certain stricter conditions.

"As we have said from the beginning, the church is willing to work with other community members to help find a good solution to this important issue. … We are hopeful these discussions will lead to a good solution for all Utahns, particularly the patients, children and their caregivers who deserve our very best effort," Stephens said in a statement.

Hughes' chief of staff, Greg Hartley, said that "like all big issues we face, the speaker has had several meetings on this topic with people from opposing sides."

"What (Hughes) has heard through those conversations is that, while there are differing opinions on certain aspects, there is more agreement than disagreement," Hartley said in a message Thursday to the Deseret News.

"So he's meeting together with people from the various sides of the issue, and testing every premise, to see if they can find common ground. He's interested in bringing sides together in an effort to help patients and protect public safety — regardless of the outcome of Prop 2. These are just discussions, and there is nothing to announce."

Inclusion in talks

On Thursday, TRUCE indicated it was organizing its own political issues committee, called Patients and Families for Prop 2, which Stenquist said "will pursue the passage of the initiative regardless of any so-called compromises that may be negotiated in secretive backroom deals."

"As far as can be ascertained, no patient or representative of patients have been included in these secret meetings," Stenquist said in a release. "This leaves patients and citizens who put this initiative on the ballot not only completely in the dark as to what may be going on in these meetings, but extremely skeptical as to what the final 'compromise' might look like."

Stenquist also warned that "no one group speaks for, represents, or owns Proposition 2 nor has the authority to negotiate any of the carefully crafted provisions of the ballot measure."

Stenquist said she is frustrated she was not able to attend talks with legislators and others despite being one of the five initial signatories on Proposition 2. Some of the other signatories feel similarly mistreated, she said.

"Yet we're supposed to trust whatever they're doing right now behind close doors is supposed to be useful for us," Stenquist said.

Schanz told the Deseret News that Stenquist "was invited and then disinvited" from some earlier discussions "because of some of her comportment."

Stenquist said she was "very adamant about being" in that meeting, but that her hand was forced when she was not going to be allowed to have her legislative advisor, Steve Urquhart, included in the talks.

Urquhart formerly served in the Utah House of Representatives and Utah Senate, leaving political office at the beginning of 2017.

Schanz said he made a follow-up effort to put Stenquist in touch with Hughes on Thursday, and that Hughes prepared to meet with her. But Stenquist backed out of any meeting with Hughes that day, according to Schanz, and had others in her organization do the same.

"Many efforts have been made to include these people," Schanz said.

Asked about why she would turn down such a meeting, Stenquist told the Deseret News that "they had already negotiated their deal and excluded us."

Urquhart said he fears an announcement over a possible policy compromise, arrived at without patients' participation, could be imminent — as soon as early this week.

"This cake has been baked and is ready to serve," Urquhart told the Deseret News.