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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a petition that sought to overturn the state law that replaced Proposition 2, the ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana.
The legal challenge, filed by a group called The People's Right, aimed to restore Proposition 2 as it was approved by voters in November. But while the petition was unsuccessful, other supporters of the ballot initiative say they are optimistic that the law will see changes in the next legislative session.
The Legislature in a special session in December overwhelmingly approved a bill to replace the voter-approved ballot initiative with a more restrictive law for medical marijuana use.
Those who brought the petition for extraordinary relief to the Utah Supreme Court argued that Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Legislature acted unconstitutionally in the process of replacing the proposition.
The Utah Supreme Court dismissed the petition, rejecting arguments that the governor exceeded his authority by effectively vetoing Proposition 2, and that the lieutenant governor wrongly denied a referendum application filed by petitioners immediately after the Legislature approved the replacement law.
Herbert called the special session on Dec. 3, one day before Proposition 2 would have gone into effect. The replacement bill, known as the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, was introduced during the special session; it passed with two-thirds of the vote in both houses and was signed into law by the governor the same day.
The petitioners then immediately filed a referendum application that would have put the new law on the ballot for voters to approve or reject — but their application was denied by Cox for two reasons.
The first reason was that one of the petitioners did not meet certain statutory requirements. The second reason was that, under state code and the Utah Constitution, laws that have been passed by at least two-thirds of both houses are not eligible for a referendum.
In the petition for emergency relief, The People's Right argued, among other things, that the two-thirds rule should not apply if the legislation originated from a citizen initiative.
But the high court rejected that argument, noting that neither the Utah Constitution nor state code say that the rule only applies to laws that originated in the Legislature.
The court also rejected the petitioners' argument that the governor acted unconstitutionally by effectively vetoing Proposition 2. The governor did not in fact veto the ballot initiative, the court stated in its opinion. He only called for a special session, which he is allowed to do.
While some supporters of Proposition 2 fought the new law in court, others have been busy meeting with lawmakers, attorneys, medical patients, and others to discuss possible changes to the law this next legislative session.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute and a proponent of Proposition 2, said that while he shared the overarching goals of The People's Right, he was not surprised to hear about the Utah Supreme Court's decision Tuesday. Boyack was not involved in the petition effort.
The court opinion, Boyack said, "verifies what we knew before the election: that even if (the ballot initiative was) successful, the establishment … could have immediately gutted or entirely repealed it."
Meetings with lawmakers and other stakeholders in the months since the new law passed, however, have left Boyack feeling optimistic about the future of medical marijuana laws in Utah.
"We have found a great deal of consensus with some of the changes we are proposing," Boyack said. "So we anticipate that in the next legislative session there will be quite a number of improvements to the medical cannabis law that will benefit patients even more and be something that the public strongly supports."