SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert came out in strong opposition Thursday, March 29, to a citizen-led medical cannabis ballot initiative poised to make it onto November’s ballot. Whether his stance will diminish the measure’s public support remains to be seen.
DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition — the political issues committee backing the initiative — said the group is close to clearing the signature-gathering hurdle of 113,143 voter signatures statewide — in proper proportion from 26 of Utah’s 29 Senate districts. So far, county clerks have verified 122,000 names in appropriate numbers from 23 Senate districts. In a few remaining counties that work continues as the April 16 deadline approaches.
“There are multiple Senate districts that touch Weber County, and all those are verified,” Schanz confirmed Friday.
Gathering of signatures is the initial step of a larger and somewhat daunting process.
“Step two is running a traditional campaign to convince those on the fence — and to get the rest out to vote,” Schanz said. That will involve media buys, mailers and door knocking over the next six months.
But Schanz downplayed the impact of Herbert’s stance: “The governor’s statement doesn’t change anything for us, and honestly, we don’t think it will move the needle. We’re just going to go full steam ahead to get patients the medicine they need.”
In his statement Thursday, Herbert said the ballot initiative had significant flaws, lacking important safeguards regarding production and utilization. He also fears it could open the door for recreational use.
A recent Dan Jones & Associates poll showed public support for legalizing medical marijuana at 77 percent. And an unscientific Standard-Examiner Facebook poll posted for the week of March 5 showed support for the initiative at 96 percent.
Herbert touted his recent signing of House Bill 197, which allows in-state cultivation of marijuana in tandem with HB 195 that gives a limited number of patients with less than six months to live the opportunity to test-drive the product without fear of prosecution.
“I fully support the science-supported use of substances that, under medical supervision, can improve lives,” Herbert said, describing HB 197 as an important first step toward research that would help determine how to prescribe and dispense cannabis.
Schanz did not fault Herbert for weighing in on the issue, but described his comments as “another example of what Utahns have grown tired of: politicians standing between patients and their physicians.”
“Saying the most conservatively drafted initiative in the entire country would ‘potentially’ open the door for recreational use is a scare tactic that has no basis in truth,” Schanz added.
Connor Boyack, founder and president of Libertas Institute — a free-market think tank in Lehi — responded to Herbert’s statement Thursday.
“It is awkward to see Gov. Herbert suggest that HB 197 is a good reason to oppose the proposed medical cannabis initiative. This bill was initially voted down and only was barely revived after its sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, pleaded with colleagues to not kill the bill,” Boyack said via Twitter. “This strong opposition suggests that it is not the ideal path Herbert claims.”
Boyack faulted HB 197 for establishing a government-run monopoly on cannabis production.
“Even worse, the cannabis is only available to Utahns who are already at death’s door — not the thousands who suffer and are scared of overdosing on opiates,” Boyack said.
Several area residents responded to Herbert’s position on the Standard-Examiner Facebook page Friday, some faulting the governor for carrying water for the LDS Church. In official statements, Utah’s dominant religion has urged caution, emphasizing the need for further research and securing of federal Food and Drug Administration approvals before prescribing cannabis for patients, a process that could take years.
Ken Collins posted: “The reality is recreational use of cannabis already exists, it's just that is in a black market. This initiative is nowhere close to Colorado or Nevada's or any of the other states that have allowed recreational, but even if it was, so what? Why continue letting an uncontrolled/unregulated market keep thriving?
“The regulation of alcohol has kept our state's number of alcohol-related issues some of the lowest in the nation, including youth use of alcohol. Prohibition is as much of a failure with cannabis as it was with alcohol. Regulate, allow for medicinal use at least, but really when something has less toxicity than aspirin, I don't see a need for nanny laws that absolutely prohibit a person's liberty to choose what they do responsibly.”
But Jeremy K. Heath felt differently: “If the initiative is structured in such a way as to allow a pathway to recreational use then it must be vetoed.”
Whitney Lee Geertsen voiced support “because banning a plant is banning possibilities for alternative pain medicine, cures/treatments for ailments, alternative sources of paper, tools, nutrition, etc. People already use it for recreation. Criminalizing addiction will only strengthen the circle of poverty and drug use. People are currently suffering and are exhausted from nightmare pain.”
Peggy Jones echoed that support. “Let's get rid of the opiate addictions and get back to nature's way of dealing with medical issues in a safe and effective way.”
VOTERS DECIDE IN NOVEMBER
If Utahns give medical cannabis the thumbs up in November, Schanz said it will take about a year to get the infrastructure in place to produce and sell both whole plant marijuana and cannabis products. The initiative prohibits smoking, but vaporizing will be permitted.
“This is not a state monopoly. The initiative gives out licensure for different aspects of cannabis,” Schanz said. That would include 15 grow licenses and at least 30 dispensary licenses. The deadline for full implementation is April 2020, Schanz added.
Herbert served as Utah’s lieutenant governor for almost five years before getting sworn in as governor on Aug. 11, 2009, when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. left to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama. Herbert was easily re-elected in 2012 and 2016, and will come up again for re-election in 2020 if he chooses to seek another term.