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In Utah, Opponents Of Medical Marijuana Initiative Want To Revise Law


Next week, lawmakers in Utah will hold a special lame duck session to vote on medical marijuana. Here's the thing. Utah voters had already passed a medical marijuana initiative earlier this month. But Republican lawmakers and opponents of the initiative, including the Mormon Church, say the law goes too far. And they want to scale it back. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, here's Julia Ritchey.

JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: Julie King is a mother of four, conservative and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the last year, she's been a vocal advocate for medical marijuana and for a very personal reason.

JULIE KING: I was diagnosed this summer with a very rare and aggressive form of cancer, one that none of my doctors in Utah have ever seen before. And cannabis is an option for me for this very rare, very highly recurrent cancer. And I want it as an option.

RITCHEY: King is one of thousands of advocates who signed on to a citizen-led petition to expand access to cannabis for chronically and terminally ill patients. The ballot initiative called Proposition 2 passed with nearly 53 percent support but not without controversy. In early October, a coalition of Republican lawmakers joined by doctors and leaders in the Mormon Church announced that regardless of whether the measure passed, they would draft another version of the law shortly after the election. This version, they said, would address concerns about public safety. Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said this at the time.


GREG HUGHES: I think we are trying to strike a strong middle ground on how we deliver for patient access medical marijuana in a safe way and also protect the public from unintended consequences.

RITCHEY: That includes, he says, keeping the drug out of the hands of young people and opening the door to recreational pot like neighboring Colorado and Nevada. The new bill narrows the list of qualifying illnesses and tightens the distribution, sale and format of the drug among other changes. Julie King has read the new legislation, all 187 pages. Here's her reaction.

KING: I'm not a big fan (laughter).

RITCHEY: She says the legislation was mostly crafted behind closed doors, excluding patient advocates and capitulating to demands from opponents like the church who have a large influence on Utah's politics. The rewrite has become so contentious that the two patient groups who helped launch Proposition 2 have splintered into warring factions, one in support of the deal, the other threatening to sue.

CONNOR BOYACK: I operate from reality and not fantasy.

RITCHEY: That's Connor Boyack, who runs a libertarian think tank and helped draft the bill.

BOYACK: There's this fantasy that, oh, the Legislature should leave Prop 2 alone.

RITCHEY: He says while he wishes the Legislature would leave the measure as-is, that's not going to happen.

HUGHES: The Legislature has the full authority to repeal an entire ballot initiative if they wanted to. That's kind of why we entered into these negotiations in anticipation of their trying to gut what we had done in Proposition 2.

RITCHEY: Governor Gary Herbert, who plans to sign the bill, says it's a fair compromise for both sides.

GARY HERBERT: We're going to be able to control access and make sure that we don't have it going into the black market and make sure that we control the quantity and the quality through pharmacy distribution. I don't know why anybody would be opposed to this.

RITCHEY: Julie King says she is. And she'll be bringing her daughter to the state Capitol on Monday to watch lawmakers.

KING: I kind of jokingly said to her, I'm going to show you how Utah politics works. Bunch of white guys in suits are going to stand up at a podium, and they're going to congratulate each other.

RITCHEY: King says the latest version of the bill would add a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a medical marijuana card, something she's not sure she has the luxury of doing.

KING: And the reality is if this revision passes the way it exists, I'm going to have to access it illegally and face the consequences.

RITCHEY: As a devout Mormon, King believes in honoring and sustaining the law. But she says sometimes laws are wrong. For NPR News, I'm Julia Ritchey in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "SKYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.