A few weeks ago, Clark Caras stood up in front of thousands of Utah GOP state delegates and asked them to pass a resolution in support of medical marijuana.
Caras recently lost a family member he was close to, who died of cancer, and believes access to the plant would have greatly improved the last months of his life.
That resolution was voted down, 70 percent to 30 percent — and it’s far from the first time the issue has faced opposition in the Beehive State.
For years now, the Utah Legislature has labored over the question of whether or not to legalize medical marijuana. In 2014, the Legislature chose to legalize a marijuana extract for use in controlling epileptic seizures.
In 2016, two laws which would have legalized medical marijuana — to differing extents — both passed through the Utah Senate, but never reached a vote in the House of Representatives. And in the 2017 session, the only marijuana legislation passed allowed only for studies to take place, which could take years to yield results.
Despite the Legislature’s hesitancy to act on medical marijuana legalization, Utahns may have the chance to vote on the issue directly in the form of a ballot initiative in 2018.
“Having tried multiple times to persuade the legislature to help these people and facing significant resistance, we think it’s best now to give the public a chance to decide for themselves,” said Connor Boyack, who is acting as a consultant for the ballot initiative. Boyack has previously advocated for medical marijuana in his role as the president of Libertas Institute, a Libertarian think tank.
The process to put the issue to Utah voters is an extensive one, which includes gathering more than 113,000 signatures from multiple regions of the state.
When it comes time to gather those signatures to bring medical marijuana to the Utah ballot, Caras is ready to start knocking doors.
The longtime Benjamin resident says he has never tried marijuana himself, but believes it should be legal under the direction of a doctor.
“I know when I go to get signatures, I plan on getting signatures at family reunions, at doors of family members,” Caras said. “In the last year and a half, we have lost a family member to cancer, and one to Parkinson’s. They could have had a better end-of-life experience in my opinion with the availability of the use of medical marijuana.”
It’s an extensive process to put an issue on the ballot. First, the language of the legislation must be written and an application turned into the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.
The language of the medical marijuana initiative is almost complete, Boyack said, and is based off of language from one of the bills that failed in the Legislature in 2016.
Senate Bill 73, sponsored by then-Sen. Mark Madsen of Saratoga Springs, was used as a baseline for the language of the ballot initiative, Boyack said, with just a few tweaks. For instance, autism was added to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana could be used.
The ballot initiative stuck more closely to the original version of Madsen’s bill, doing away with amendments made later during the 2016 session that did away with the whole-leaf aspect of the product.
The ballot initiative includes access to the whole plant, though smoking it will be prohibited, Boyack said.
Boyack said the language will be turned into the Lieutenant Governor’s Office soon — probably within a couple weeks. The Lieutenant Governor’s Office then reviews the application and can accept it or reject it if it is unconstitutional, nonsensical or contains more than one subject.
If it’s accepted, seven public meetings must be hosted throughout different regions of the state — and that’s when the signature gathering can start.
According to state law, to get an initiative on the ballot, signatures must be gathered that total 10 percent of the total votes cast in the last presidential election. Since Utahns cast approximately 1.13 million votes in the 2016 presidential election, it would take just over 113,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot.
It’s not as simple as just collecting the 113,000 signatures. They have to be spread out semi-evenly over the many senate districts in the state.
“The sponsors must collect the signatures of registered Utah voters from each of at least 26 of the 29 state senate districts equal to 10 percent of votes cast for US President in that district,” according to elections.utah.gov.
That means that 26,078 signatures would need to be gathered in the combined senate districts that at least partially include Utah County. Many of those districts extend into other counties.
Ten percent of votes cast in Utah County during the 2016 presidential election comes to just over 20,000.
Boyack said they already have much of the financial backing that will be needed to pay professionals to gather signatures.
“We’ve got some very strong commitments,” Boyack said. “We’re following up to get checks written.”
He said he’s confident that they’ll get the $2 million needed to pay for signature gathering and promotional media.
“There are a lot of individuals who are very upset with the Legislature for having the chance to help people, then punting,” Boyack said.
Can it pass?
Even if the necessary signatures are collected, Utah voters would still have to choose to pass the initiative.
Organizations like the Utah Medical Association have consistently opposed legalizing cannabis as medicine before it has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Even the prominent and influential Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints weighed in on the issue in 2016, specifically favoring one medical marijuana bill over another more comprehensive one.
Boyack says he believes the odds of passage are good — polls show that people want medical marijuana to be legal, he said.
And Caras believes that, especially in the rural community like where he’s from, people will be receptive to the idea.
“People who work the land have an incredible respect for their alfalfa, wheat, barley and corn,” Caras said. “And cannabis is a crop. In the agricultural publications that come to my father’s door, there are articles about cannabis farmers in Colorado and California — and they’re not being put down.”