Utah considers giving lawmakers the power to change voter-approved marijuana laws
The proposal suspiciously comes right as an initiative to legalize medical marijuana is gaining momentum in the state.
Lawmakers in Utah are considering legislation which would allow them to edit voter-approved ballot measures before they take effect ahead of a medical marijuana legalization initiative which could be on the ballot this fall.
According to the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Brad Daw, the measure is designed to allow lawmakers to reconcile voter-approved laws with what the state’s government is actually capable of implementing. But this proposal, known as HB471, comes at a time when an effort by Daw to legalize medical marijuana clashes with a more liberal ballot initiative that would do the same thing.
Last month, Daw narrowly managed to usher two marijuana bills through the State’s House of Reps. The first, HB197, would instruct the Department of Agriculture to grow marijuana for medical purposes, while the other bill, HB195, would offer a “right to try” medical cannabis to a strictly limited number of patients. Both bills have passed the House and now go to the Senate where they will either be voted on by Thursday or pushed to the 2019 legislative session.
Whether the Senate approves the Daw bills or not, the measures are seen by some as being too restrictive; only offering medical cannabis to 25 terminally ill patients per physician—specifically those with a diagnosis of six months left to live. Those patients will only have access to the government grown medicine.
By contrast, the ballot initiative is far broader and would allow for patients to be issued medical licenses with as many as 11 qualifying illnesses and an option to appeal for approval of any illness which is not on the official list. The ballot measure would also allow for dispensaries as well as a home growing option, after 2021, of up to six plants if there are no dispensaries within 100 miles.
In Utah, when a ballot initiative is passed by voters it goes into effect after election results are finalized. That process usually takes a couple of weeks, but Daw’s proposed changes would delay that process by about six months giving the legislature an opportunity to make changes to the voter-approved initiative.
Currently, the legislature is able to make changes to voter-approved initiatives, but only once they have been implemented as law. The measure is being seen by legalization activists as an attempt to undermine the will of the voters in favor of the law which Daw has proposed. DJ Schanz of the Utah Patients Coalition, called it “moving the goal posts in the middle of the game.”
For their part, defenders of the bill seemed to admit that it could be used for political reasons but promised that this likely won’t be the case. Instead, they argue, the law will be used to correct errors and adjust any budgetary requirements voter-approved measures may include.
“All we’re saying is, if you pass your initiative in November we want to have a chance at the Legislature, for practical reasons—possibly for political reasons, but largely for practical reasons—to be able to correct any errors, to fix our budget,” said Republican Rep. Norm Thurston.
The state hasn’t seen a successful ballot initiative in nearly two decades, Daw told the Associated Press, so the timing of this attempt to alter ballot measures retroactively strikes a suspicious note.
Adding another degree of complication to the issue, petitioners for the medical marijuana ballot measure were caught forging some of the signatures required to place the initiative on the ballot, according to Utah’s Standard-Examiner.
The petitioners, Emma Riches and Alexander Burke, have been charged with eight counts of forgery after an elections office clerk found that Riches forged at least 352 signatures and Burke forged up to 120 for two initiatives, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act and for the Direct Primary Election Act. The number of signatures required for the initiative to make it to the ballot in November is 113,143 with a deadline of April 15, 2018.