Utah’s marijuana bill hijacked by Republicans and Mormon Church, but battle rages on

Utah’s marijuana bill hijacked by Republicans and Mormon Church, but battle rages on

In the midterm elections last month, Utah voters passed a medical marijuana bill. They approved Proposition 2, a ballot initiative introduced by advocates at the Utah Patients Coalition. Fifty-three percent of Utah voters voted yes on Proposition 2.

In most states (and most democracies), if the majority of voters approve a ballot initiative, it gets enacted into law. It doesn’t always work that way in Utah, however. While the state is technically a democracy, the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) — also known as the Mormon Church — wields unparalleled power over the lives of Utah citizens.

In October, when the measure began gaining popularity in the polls, Utah Governor Gary Herbert convened a secret meeting. Leaders from the Mormon Church attended the meeting, along with advocates from the Utah Patients Coalition. Later that month, Governor Herbert announced their “compromise.”

The compromise bill, which would replace Proposition 2, will make it incredibly difficult for patients to access medical marijuana. For starters, the compromise restricted which medical conditions qualify for medical cannabis. (It deemed nearly everyone with autoimmune diseases undeserving of medical marijuana.) It bans edible forms of cannabis. (Oddly, it makes an exception for gelatin cubes, possibly because they’ll be too disgusting for anyone — especially patients with nausea — to actually eat them.) Smokable marijuana is likewise prohibited.

According to the compromise bill, the medical marijuana program will be run mostly by the state. An enormous bureaucracy will be created to oversee the dissemination of marijuana. 

The the compromise came out, some medical marijuana advocates felt betrayed by the Utah Patients Coalition. Why had they given up on their own bill?

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) defended the advocacy group.

“This bill is undoubtedly inferior to the law enacted by voters in November,” an MPP spokesperson said in a prepared statement. “However, Proposition 2 would very likely have been defeated without the compromise deal, which prevented an onslaught of opposition spending.”

In other words, had the Utah Patients Coalition not compromised with the Mormon and Republican leaders, there might be zero access to medical cannabis whatsoever.

It’s hard to know whether the bill would have passed without the compromise.

On election night, the Mormon Church urged Utahns to vote against Proposition 2. It appears the Mormon Church was not holding up their end of the bargain.

The bill passed, despite the LDS Church’s statements. But the state legislature has decided to ignore the will of the voters. The Republican-controlled body has also expanded government overreach, by creating a massive bureaucracy to handle medical marijuana. This move has been decried as downright un-Republican — and certainly undemocratic.

It also violates the separation of Church and State, which is laid out in the Utah Constitution as well as the US Constitution. Legislators are supposed to respect the will of the voters.

That’s what new advocacy groups are alleging, in a lawsuit they’ve filed to block the compromise bill. The plaintiffs — an organization called Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah — are fighting to restore the will of the voters in Utah.

But the Mormon Church is extremely powerful. Nearly two-thirds of Utah residents are estimated to belong to the church — and over 90 percent of the state legislature.

Do Utah voters live in a democracy? Thanks to the medical marijuana debate, we’re about to find out.