SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives' leading Democrats heard from dozens of Utahns about Proposition 2 in a public forum Wednesday, including the key players who crafted a compromise medical marijuana bill intended to replace it.
Numerous speakers who described themselves or family members as medical marijuana patients also spoke to the Democrats' House leadership in favor of legalization and improving access for patients, though the views they shared on both Proposition 2 and the compromise were more nuanced.
The campaign that put the medical marijuana initiative on the ballot, called the Utah Patients Coalition, was on hand to defend the merits of the compromise bill, as was fellow pro-Proposition 2 group Libertas Institute.
The Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both of which are groups that oppose Proposition 2, also touted the compromise.
Those groups announced this month they had reached a consensus, in the form of a written bill, after weeks of private discussions organized by Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and attended by legislative leadership in the state House and Senate.
Both sides maintained their current positions on Proposition 2 itself, which, having been signed by Utah voters, cannot be amended, but promised to de-escalate campaign efforts and to work on passing the compromise in a November special legislative session regardless of whether the ballot initiative passes or is rejected on Election Day.
The groups said at the time they met a middle ground on several issues, notably which forms of marijuana would be permitted and in what ways it could be medically recommended and sold.
"This compromise is not my utopian ideal of how things would be rolled out, but what it is, is I think a possibility of a workable medical cannabis program that I think is going to be (best) for the near- and long-term future," said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition.
Still, some advocates on both sides of the question of medical marijuana legalization said they were unhappy with the agreement.
"The state of Utah has no right to ignore the (Food and Drug Administration), nor do you as a legislature have any right to decide what is medicine," said Walter Plumb, president of the political issues committee Drug Safe Utah, which formed this spring to campaign against Proposition 2.
Plumb said that to him, even the compromise represents recreational marijuana's "first step, entryway, into our state."
But Marty Stephens, director of community and government relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the panel that "we think this compromise will be really helpful to the patients of the state of Utah," while also eliminating the concerns the church has about what it sees as a lack of appropriate safeguards in Proposition 2. The church remains opposed to the initiative itself.
"As far as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned, we are committed to being supportive of getting this compromise passed regardless of the passage or failure of the initiative, and getting access to medical cannabis for those patients who need it while doing so in a way that will protect the children of our state."
This compromise is not my utopian ideal of how things would be rolled out, but what it is, is I think a possibility of a workable medical cannabis program that I think is going to be (best) for the near- and long-term future.
–DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition
Michelle McOmber, Utah Medical Association CEO, said her organization wanted the way medical marijuana is handled "to look something like other medicines," by including doctors and pharmacists more in the process and holding them more accountable for their practices in getting it to patients. The compromise handles that, she told Democrats' House leadership.
Steve Urquhart, former state senator and the legislative counsel for advocacy group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, called the compromise bill an "electioneering ploy" meant to "confuse voters and to tell them it was all figured out, not to vote for Prop. 2."
He told the panel he hopes Utah voters won't give up their leverage over the state Legislature.
"They shouldn't have to come and beg for bread crumbs like they have for these past five years," Urquhart said. "They need this mandate. … I think Utah voters are smart I hope they see through this ploy."
In the public comment period, some said they supported the compromise, and several others claimed it was inappropriately restrictive and wasn't made with the input of patients.
"I spent quite a bit of time gathering signatures for Prop. 2, I was so happy when Prop. 2 came out," said Stephen Beck, from Riverton. "(But) I have to say I do support the compromise, I think it has a better chance of bringing medical cannabis to patients."
Doug Rice, president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah, said he supports only Proposition 2 and is discouraged at the "disinformation" pushed by opponents of medical marijuana who he said would only be convinced to support a compromise in the face of overwhelming voter support of the ballot initiative.
Many speakers didn't talk in any detail about either piece of legislation, but more vaguely urged House Democrats to heavily weigh compassion for patients in their decisions. Very few who spoke at the meeting said they opposed legalization.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, promised Democratic house leadership would listen to the concerns voiced at the forum.
"I know that you speak with authenticity and that you're being heard. … We'll try to bring this forward in a way that actually makes a difference in your life and doesn’t get enjoined in the courts for years to come," Chavez-Houck said.