Tensions escalate over Utah’s “compromise” medical marijuana bill

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Tensions continue to escalate in an ongoing lawsuit between medical marijuana advocates and the state of Utah. Most recently, the lawyer in charge of a key lawsuit circulated a detailed letter. In it, he described Utah’s current medical marijuana bill as unconstitutional and illegal. Ultimately, the lawsuit calls for a return to the state’s previous medical marijuana program, which was approved by voters last November but overwritten by lawmakers in December.

Fighting House Bill 3001

In December 2018, Attorney Rocky Anderson filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah. The suit was a response to House Bill 3001, which lawmakers passed in a legislative special session earlier that month.

Lawmakers bill H.B. as a “compromise bill.” But critics of the bill say that H.B. 3001 actually functions as a replacement to Proposition 2, the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November 2018.

Importantly, many medical marijuana advocates throughout the state claim that H.B. 3001 fundamentally alters the bill put into place by voters. And they want to see H.B. 3001 repealed so that Proposition 2 can be reinstated.

Currently, the state is facing two separate lawsuits. The first was filed by Anderson on behalf of multiple plaintiffs, including Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) and The Epilepsy Association of Utah.

Additionally, another group called The Peoples’ Right filed its own lawsuit. Both suits were filed in December 2018.

With both suits still in the works, Anderson and the advocates he represents have ratcheted up their campaign against H.B. 3001. Last week, Anderson sent a letter to county commissioners and city council members across Utah.

In it, he claimed that H.B. 3001 is fundamentally illegal and unconstitutional. As such, he warned local officials against complying with the bill. Additionally, he invited commissioners and city council members to join the fight against H.B. 3001.

Lawyer and Advocates: Utah’s “Compromise Bill” is Illegal

In the letter, Anderson explained that H.B. 3001’s “central fill” program illegally requires state and local health departments to break federal cannabis laws.

“Under H.B. 3001, the health departments are to participate in arranging for the purchase, distribution, transportation, storage, and sale of a Schedule 1 controlled substance—all of which is absolutely forbidden by the federal Controlled Substances Act,” Anderson’s letter said.

According to Anderson, the sticking point in H.B. 3001 is that it specifically requires health departments in Utah to participate. In making this requirement, Anderson claimed, H.B. 3001 effectively creates a “felonious, full-service drug cartel.”

“Laws in other states, which have been upheld, do not compel anybody to violate federal law. They simply say that the state will not go after you for whatever’s allowed under that state’s cannabis laws” Anderson told High Times. “How Utah is different from every other state is the distribution scheme in which they’re requiring health departments to purchase, store, transport, distribute, and sell cannabis.”

He added: “That is blatantly prohibited under federal law. It’s an almost certain way of legally defeating this replacement bill, or at least that portion of it.”

Building the Case Against Utah

With this most recent letter, Anderson and the advocates he’s representing in the lawsuit, appear to be scaling up their case against the state. Specifically, the letter articulates a third primary complaint. Prior to this letter, the lawsuit focused on two primary issues.

First, Anderson and his clients argued that when lawmakers replaced the voter-approved Proposition 2 with H.B. 3001, they violated the public’s right to create laws through the initiative process.

Second, the original lawsuit claims that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormon Church, wrongfully interfered in the state’s lawmaking process.

Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the LDS Church is generally recognized as having significant influence over its members, who make up almost 63 percent of Utah’s population. Additionally, a large proportion of Utah lawmakers are also Mormon. Even more, the LDS Church maintains a strong lobbying presence in the state.

Importantly, the LDS Church was very active in campaigns against Prop 2. For example, it sent a letter to all members encouraging them to vote against the proposition. Additionally, the church’s lobbyists consistently urged lawmakers to work to defeat or replace Prop 2.

As a result, Anderson and his clients claim that the Mormon Church exerted illegal influence over the legislation process.

“They’re [the LDS Church] playing too heavily in Utah politics,” Christine Stenquist, President of TRUCE, told High Times.”This issue crossed party lines and religious lines, and has affected people in a really profound way. A lot of people are saying they want their church to stay out of politics, and what the church is doing makes them uncomfortable.”

Anderson said he plans to amend the original lawsuit. In particular, he plans to add to the suit the additional argument regarding H.B. 3001’s mandatory “central fill” system. Additionally, he hopes to add new plaintiffs.

Timeline: Utah’s Ongoing Medical Marijuana Drama

Anderson’s new letter and his intent to amend the lawsuit represents the newest chapter in what has become a long and drawn-out drama. The following timeline maps out key moments in the controversy surrounding H.B. 3001:

  • June 2018: LDS lobbyist Marty Stephens organizes a closed-door meeting to craft alternatives to Proposition 2.
  • August 2018: LDS Church officially announces its opposition to Prop 2. On August 23, a church spokesperson said “we urge the voters of Utah to vote no on Proposition 2.” The LDS Church also sent a letter to its members, encouraging them to vote against the proposition.
  • November 6, 2018: Voters in Utah approve Prop 2, making medical marijuana legal.
  • December 1, 2018: Prop 2 officially goes into effect.
  • December 3, 2018: At urging from the LDS Church representatives, lawmakers hold a “special session” in which they replace Prop 2 with H.B. 3001.
  • December 5, 2018: Rocky Anderson files a lawsuit against Utah on behalf of a group of medical marijuana patients and advocacy groups.
  • December 10, 2018: The Peoples’ Right files its own separate lawsuit.
  • February 20, 2019: Rocky Anderson sends letter to county commissioners and city council members in Utah, arguing that H.B. 3001’s central fill system is illegal.

For now, the battle over H.B. 3001 and Prop 2 is ongoing. For many in the state, the outcome of the suit has long-term implications—both for Utah and the nation at large.

“This is the fight that has to happen,” Stenquist told High Times. “To get de-scheduling at some point in the future, it’s got to start with a conservative state like Utah. It will take a place like Utah to adopt cannabis to get the federal government to start looking at this seriously.”

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