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Utahns ask Utah Supreme Court to restore voter-approved medical marijuana law

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utahns argued at the Utah Supreme Court on Monday that state lawmakers last year improperly disregarded voters in passing legislation to replace Proposition 2 legalizing medical marijuana.

Steve Maxfield, of Kanosh, told the justices that the Legislature in a special session called by the governor undid the voter-approved ballot initiative 48 hours after it took effect Dec. 1. He contends the initiative process has been rendered "meaningless" and the Legislature has "become the only game in town."

"Very clearly what the citizens wanted under Proposition 2 … has been thrown out the window," he said.

Maxfield, who heads a group called The People's Right, and 52 others filed an emergency petition seeking to overturn the law and restore Proposition 2 as approved in November.

Daniel Newby, of Taylorsville, told the justices that the initiative process has "disintegrated" and the Legislature has "destroyed" the trust of the half-million people who voted for Proposition 2.

Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, right, talks with Steve Maxfield, of Konosh, left, outside the Utah Supreme Court following oral arguments on Monday, March 25, 2019. Maxfield and several dozen Utahns have petitioned the court to overturn t
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, right, talks with Steve Maxfield, of Konosh, left, outside the Utah Supreme Court following oral arguments on Monday, March 25, 2019. Maxfield and several dozen Utahns have petitioned the court to overturn the medical marijuana law that state lawmakers passed in December and restore Proposition 2 as approved by voters in November.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Maxfield, Newby and fellow petitioner Bart Grant, of Monroe — none of whom are attorneys — appeared confused at times by some of the justices' questions.

The justices seemed to back off them a bit, but went hard after attorneys for the governor's office and the Legislature.

Justice Deno Himonas asked what extraordinary circumstances existed for the Legislature to call a special session rather than wait until the general session to alter the initiative.

"This is the first time that the state would be faced with a medical marijuana law," said Stanford Purser, Utah deputy solicitor general. "To me, that's extraordinary. It's never happened before."

Justice Paige Petersen asked if there is anything citizens can do to protect an initiative from being changed by the Legislature.

"What can they do if they want it to stay intact in the way that they have passed it? Do they have any protection from the Legislature just changing it?"

Voters aren't being treated any worse than the legislators whose bills can be amended or repealed in the same session or in a special session, Purser said.

Petersen said she understands initiatives are the same as laws passed by the Legislature.

"But on the other hand, in the Utah Constitution legal voters have legislative power," she said. "If the Legislature can effectively change anything that the people pass, has that nullified that right? Is it essentially an empty power?"

Purser said the state constitution gives people the power to initiate legislation. "It says nothing about the initiative is sacrosanct, that it takes on some quasi-constitutional status that can't be amended," he said.

After the hearing, Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, who played a key role in drafting Proposition 2 but also the compromise bill that the Utah Legislature passed, said he'd love to see the court restore the initiative.

"But even the petitioners were getting a little bit of air support from the justices in pressuring the state to answer these questions. We think at the end of the day they're going to recognize the Legislature can do precisely what they did and the (law) will stand," he said.

As Boyack talked to reporters, Maxfield accused him of "capitulating," igniting an impromptu 20-minute debate outside the courtroom.

Maxfield argued that citizen initiatives are not "advisory" and that they should take effect after voters pass them.

"We need to restrict the Legislature," he said. "They're going to do what they want. We try to play their game. We can form PACs. We can give them money, but we just gotta accept what they do, and that is wrong."

Boyack said 85 percent to 90 percent of Proposition 2 remained intact in the compromise bill. Had a compromised not been reached, medical marijuana supporters would have walked away with nothing, he said.

The People's Right originally came out as politically neutral on Proposition 2. But Maxfield said as he became involved with initiative backers, "it became painfully clear there has been a division over Prop. 2 and the patients that actually need it as was written knew that the Legislature was going to eviscerate it and take away that right."

Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, brokered the compromise legislation through dozens of hours of private negotiations. Groups involved in those talks included the Utah Patients Coalition, the initiative campaign organizer that helped write Proposition 2; Libertas Institute and influential anti-Proposition 2 groups the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposed the ballot measure.

Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah sued Gov. Gary Herbert and Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, in December seeking to invalidate the legislation.