Utah Governor Signs Bill to Replace Voter-Approved Medical Cannabis Initiative


Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation late last night to override Proposition 2, the medical cannabis access ballot initiative passed by 53 percent of voters just last month. The new law will immediately take effect.

The hotly-debated compromise bill – known as the Utah Medical Cannabis Act – passed both the Utah House and Senate by wide margins yesterday, split largely along Democratic and Republican party lines. In the House the vote was 61-13; in the Senate 22-4.

Monday’s vote, however is not likely to end the controversy over the Act. Christine Stenquist, director of the patient advocacy group TRUCE — Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education — said early Monday that her organization planned to sue if the lawmakers passed the compromise bill. It wasn’t immediately clear late Monday how soon a suit might be filed. State law does not prevent the legislature from changing voter initiatives, as Cannabis Wire noted in a piece about this compromise bill earlier this week. 

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, heralded the vote as a good day for Utah, saying that the Act was forged out of a level of compromise not often seen on Capitol Hill and said that the provision of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act will make the state’s medical cannabis program both structurally and politically stronger once its up and running.

“I think if this was the agreement put forward to the public, I believe it would have passed with more than 70 percent,” Hughes told Cannabis Wire.

Hughes disagrees with those who argue that the Act was drafted in secret by a select group and said the bill was made public in October in order to draw stakeholders into a conversation. It was a comprehensive agreement that was never seen as “against the will of the people. We felt it was in harmony (with it),” Hughes said.

In the House, the bill drew several hours of debate, with lawmakers asking questions, offering suggestions for amendments — lowering the age for access to 18 across the board, for example  — and ample opinions about the harms that might come to Utah communities if Prop. 2 was allowed to stand.

Democratic Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck of Salt Lake City unsuccessfully sought to protect Prop 2, offering her colleague a substitute proposal that would make nothing more than the technical changes required to bring it in line with Utah law.

“This is all we should be doing less than 30 days from when voters asserted their intention,” she said before the vote.

In the Senate, Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he felt the decisions of lawmakers to adopt a wholesale replacement of initiative likely leaves about 50 percent of the Utah electorate feeling “disrespected.”

The senator, who is retiring from the Legislature this year, also reminded senators the state’s constitution specifically gives citizens, not elected officials, inherent political power.

“So for us to come in a few days after an election and say, we know better than 52.75 % of the citizens who went and voted …I think is a level of arrogance we ought not to display,” Dabakis said.

Aubrey Taylor, who runs the Facebook group Utah Medical Cannabis Coalition, was unhappy with Monday’s vote and left the House gallery giving lawmakers the ‘thumbs down’ sign and shouting, “Fuck you.”

“It’s just a very emotional experience because the people voted on this, so it should pass the way the people wanted it,” she told Cannabis Wire. “Not have our legislators put their own take on it.”

Taylor said she fears the requirements of the replacement bill will be so odious that a plan for medical cannabis access will never actually be implemented. Taylor said lawmakers should have implemented Prop. 2 first and then moved to make changes or address any problems.

Now, Taylor said, she and others will have to continue to put pressure on lawmakers to ensure voters will get the access they sought.

“We’re not going to stop fighting,” she said.

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