RIVERDALE — A few years back, if you brought up the notion of legalizing marijuana for medical use at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, you’d likely end up talking to yourself.
“They totally ignored us five years ago,” said Kathy Marriott, who’s been active on the issue for several years, in part because the substance has helped her daughter deal with chronic pain. “They were calling it snake oil. They were just doing everything in their power to discourage us.”
She and others didn’t let up, and now the debate has broken wide open, turning into one of the hot topics of the political cycle in Utah. Proposition 2, on the Nov. 6 ballot, calls for legalization of the use of medical marijuana, and as Election Day nears, the political wrangling over the proposal is reaching a pitch.
More specifically, it would permit use of medical marijuana by people with certain medical conditions, with restrictions on the quantity that may be consumed in a 14-day period, according to the ABU Education Fund, a nonprofit group that promotes civic engagement. The proposal also outlines licensing guidelines for cultivation of the drug, which users would have to acquire at licensed dispensaries.
Red signs calling for passage of Prop 2, as it’s known, are popping up in yards all around Ogden and the rest of Weber County, and Marriott and other proponents took to Riverdale Road in Riverdale on Monday to tout the cause.
“I want the right to try it,” said Jessica Fiveash, among the contingent of a dozen or so demonstrating from the sidewalk abutting the busy commercial corridor, some waving red “I’m voting for Prop 2” signs.
She suffers from fibromyalgia, which can cause intense pain, and quit her job as a teacher in Roy because it got to be too much. The correct strain of medical cannabis could help, she thinks, and potentially get her off opioids, the current alternative.
As is, opiods, Fiveash said, have taken a heavy toll. “I can’t think as well. I’m not as sharp. I lose my train of thought,” she said. “I want a natural alternative to try.”
Marriott — using a cane because of chronic pain she suffers, pain she thinks medical pot could help address — describes it as a matter of life and death. Use and abuse of opiods, the legal drug used to address some of the pain issues cannabis proponents say the alternative substance could counter, led to around 175,000 deaths nationwide between 1999 and 2013. That’s from Napoli and Shkolnik, a law firm helping lead the legal fight against opioid makers stemming from the ill effects of use of the drug.
“We’re hoping that the people will stop dying, is what it is,” Marriott said. “We’re tired of going to funerals.”
Passing cars honked as the Riverdale Road demonstrators waved signs. Some motorists pulled into an adjacent parking lot to get their own pro-Prop 2 signs, the intent of Monday’s effort. After only an hour or so, Boosters handed out more than 100 of the placards, which came from the group spearheading the drive, the Utah Patients Coalition.
Pam Harrison, a local political activist involved in Indivisible Ogden, said the pro-Prop 2 efforts started taking off at the Harvest Moon celebration in downtown Ogden on Sept. 22. That’s where and when she and others started distributing the red signs in Weber County in earnest to promote the initiative.
“We gave away mountains of signs,” Harrison said from the Riverdale Road demonstration.
ADVERSE IMPACT ON TEENS, YOUTH?
Of course, the views run the gamut and the debate is intense, though a recent Deseret News poll shows Prop 2 has 64 percent support from the voting public.
A contingent from the Davis County Republican Women held a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, lobbying for the defeat of Prop 2.
Afterward, Jennifer Brown, president of the group and a Bountiful dentist, said foes have many concerns, but she zeroed in on the potential harm of cannabis use among teens and youth. Their brains are still developing and use of the drug can have a particularly intense effect, making them more vulnerable to addiction. Prop 2, as written, would allow all ages to potentially use medical cannabis, she continued, and it sets no parameters on dosages in dealing with medical ailments, raising the specter of abuse.
“We do support marijuana done through pharmacies and done the right way,” Brown said.
Even so, she lamented “the innocuous way” marijuana has been discussed throughout the Prop 2 debate. “I felt from the beginning, the addictive nature and seriousness of marijuana needed to be fully understood,” she said.
A coalition of religious, political and other leaders released a statement of opposition to Prop 2 last August, warning that legalization elsewhere had resulted in increased use of the drug by youth. While not opposed to medical use of marijuana derivatives, it went on, Prop 2 doesn’t contain enough safeguards for “protecting youth and preventing other societal harms.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has voiced opposition to Prop 2 on similar grounds and a church leader is a signatory to the statement.
Back on Riverdale Road, though, the demonstrators spoke to what they say are the benefits of medical marijuana. Mica Medford, of Roy, a Utah Patients Coalition volunteer, said the substance has helped her husband deal with a spine issue and pain in his joints.
“When he has tried it, his pain has reduced by at least half. It gives him energy because he feels less pain,” Medford said.
Harrison said medical marijuana is already being used, even if it’s illegal, and that the toll of opioid abuse speaks to the need to allow the alternative.
“Everybody knows someone who already self-medicates from it, who has died from an opioid overdose,” she said.
In light of the years of debate, Marriott sees a softening of views on the issue, giving her hope about Prop 2’s prospects. Utah lawmakers have gone back and forth on the issue over the years, but with the Prop 2 debate intensifying, state lawmakers recently crafted a compromise proposal that takes into account some of the critics’ concerns, also allowing medical marijuana use. Medical cannabis would have to be sold in dosages, only at pharmacies, per the alternative, and provisions allowing cultivation of plants for personal use would be removed, according to ABU Education Fund. It also contains new language clarifying and limiting when medical marijuana may be used.
Indeed, Marriott has noted increased openness in discussing the subject, underscored by the alternative proposal. Likewise, those who rely on the drug are more and more willing to speak out about their experiences.
“It’s been little baby steps,” she said. “It’s been a long, hard road, but we’re almost to the end.”