The Church Gets Involved In Rewriting Utah’s Medical Marijuana Laws
Connor Boyack, president and founder of the Liberatus Institute has never used marijuana. “I was a pretty straight edge Mormon kid. It was not part of my growing up,” he says. But despite that, he and his team at the Institute are the reason why medical marijuana made it to Utah.
Home alone one evening, Mr. Boyack found himself enthralled with the documentary, Weed. CNN’s lead physician, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was involved in the documentary and decided to feature a little girl by the name of Charlotte Figi, who was using marijuana to help treat her epilepsy. As soon as she implemented the medical marijuana regimen (she was using a cannabis strain low in THC and high in CBD) it almost completely eliminated her seizures.
Inspired by her story, and intrigued by the potential of medical marijuana for patients in need throughout Utah, Mr. Boyack, his team at the Liberatus Institute, former senator Steve Urquhart, and former senator Mark Madsen helped pass a landmark bill in 2014 legalizing the use of CBD cannabis extracts containing low percentages of THC (the psychoactive chemical in marijuana) for those with epilepsy.
But Mr. Boyack and his team weren’t content. They wanted to help even more patients in need, so they began drafting Proposition 2, which they hoped, would legalize medical marijuana usage for a broader scope of patients. “It was myself and our vice president who went out and fundraised $1 million to get [the medical marijuana] campaign off of the ground,” he says, mentioning that the group later formed the Utah Patients Coalition.
However, despite gathering more than the required signatures needed to get on the ballot, Mr. Boyack was worried about losing the battle of legalization in such a conservative state. And his fears only worsened when the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its allies promised to commit over a million dollars in ad spending against the proposition.
“I am a member of the LDS church and I opposed my own church’s involvement in the initiative so vocally that they wrote a legal memo directly in response to my organization’s rebuttal of their legal memo,” Mr. Boyack says. “We were on quite opposite sides. I have many scars for those who want to see them.”
But despite all odds, and church involvement, Proposition 2 did pass―to a tune of 52.75 percent―giving a number of qualified patients in need access to medicinal cannabis. Additionally, the proposition would, in limited circumstances, allow patients to grow six plants for personal, medical use. Or at least, that’s the proposition that the majority voted for.
Just one day before Proposition 2 would have legally taken effect, Governor Gary Herbert called a special legislative session to make drastic changes to the initiative. “They felt that it was insufficiently medical and that it did not have enough regulatory oversight to ensure that it would not be kind of quasi-recreational,” says Mr. Boyack. The government felt the proposition was too broad and wanted tighter restrictions.
A compromise bill (that the Liberatus Institute helped draft) was signed into law later that December, but included a considerable number of changes. It’s still being altered as of August 2019. Under the new legislation, fewer patients would qualify for cannabis treatment, the personal cultivation of plants would be allowed under no circumstances, edibles would be restricted, and patient records would be stored for an infinite period of time.
Naturally, in light of the changes, there was a loud public outcry, resulting in lawsuits filed by The People’s Right, the Epilepsy Association of Utah (EAU), and TRUCE, a group for the safe, legal access of cannabis, shortly after the special session was called. To make matters worse, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was involved with the drafting of the compromise, and voters grew outraged as a result.
The Church was against the proposition from the get-go. “It was a huge slap to the face of any voter in Utah,” says Proposition 2 supporter, Erik Robertson. “It basically told me that the government here cares more about what the LDS church wants, over the majority of the citizens who live here.”
I asked Mr. Boyack if there was any truth to the rumors about Church involvement, and he confirmed it. “The LDS church was very involved in the negotiations,” says Mr. Boyack. “Marty Stephens, the former speaker of the Utah House of Representatives is their government affairs director and was a part of the conversations from beginning to end.”
Perhaps that’s the real reason citizens were upset with the compromise. Propositions are almost always altered during the legislative process, but this one hinted at Church involvement in state affairs. “Although initiative statutes may be amended or repealed by the Legislature, the almost immediate extreme undermining of numerous provisions of Proposition 2 at the behest of The Church of Jesus Christ [of Latter-day Saints] is anti-democratic and contemptuous,” Rocky Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor and the lawyer representing TRUCE in their lawsuit, said in a Salt Lake Tribune article at the time.
To many, the dramatic alterations to voter-approved law felt like a huge judicial overstep but Mr. Boyack doesn’t think so. “Look, I would have preferred Proposition 2, but it was very clear that even if we had won the battle [on medical cannabis] we were going to lose the war,” he says. “Proposition 2 was never going to remain untouched. We can be upset about it, and we can gripe about it, but it was extremely clear that legislative leaders were prepared to gut our proposition.
“We identified, during the campaign, many shortcomings in the language that we drafted and if we had the opportunity to make amendments during the process, we would have done so. But we couldn’t. And so we use the negotiations to fix those issues and also make improvements. There were things in the negotiated bill that were even better for patients,” Mr. Boyack says.
Though the TRUCE/EAU lawsuit isn’t expected to go to trial until late 2021 or 2022, the lawsuit brought on by The People’s Right was dismissed by the Utah Supreme Court in August of 2019. According to the Supreme Court, neither Gov. Herbert nor the other Utah State legislators overstepped their judicial authority when creating the replacement bill.
Currently, lawmakers in Utah have the legal authority to make any changes they deem necessary to citizen-led propositions. In fact, since 2010, Utah state legislation has overridden two of the three ballot initiatives brought forth by citizens, the third being Proposition 3, the Medicaid initiative which also debuted in 2018.
But just because the government didn’t technically do anything wrong when replacing the proposition, that doesn’t mean voters shouldn’t be angry. Former Utah state senator, Steve Urquhart believes the government was “disrespectful,” in overriding the proposition, and plans to propose a bill during the 2020 legislative session. Titled the Utah Initiative Protection Act, it aims to limit legislative power when replacing initiatives by requiring a final vote from citizens.
“The people need a role during the process,” says Mr. Urquhart. “Just like how the Senate gets to review the House’s work and the House gets to review the Senate’s work. The people need an opportunity to review the legislature’s work when the people have gone through all the trouble to pass an initiative.”
Mr. Boyack respectfully opposes Mr. Urquhart’s proposed bill. “It would be dangerous to ever cement into law what voters enacted through an initiative. It would be politically reckless to do so, and I say that as a person who drafted an initiative,” he says. “Initiatives are not about every word, and every clause, and every aspect of the law. Frankly, initiatives are fundamentally about an issue. If anything, it’s a concept that is being voted on. Not the particulars.”
Though Mr. Boyack is pleased with the progress made, he understands the public outcry had less to do with the rewritten proposition, as it did with the parties involved with rewriting it. “I recognize that there does need to be a conversation about the balance of power between the legislature and the people,” he says.
But at the end of the day, Mr. Boyack remains positive. “I feel increasingly convinced that the path we took is what allowed Proposition 2 to pass. It gave us the opportunity to improve things through consensus and collaborative relationships rather than fighting and demanding things that may have had a short term victory,” he says. “But I’m not stopping any time soon. I know way too many patients who need this.”