Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Utah’s Medical Marijuana Opponents | Marijuana

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Utah’s Medical Marijuana Opponents

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By Lindsay Whitehurst

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Allegations of deceit, fraud, intimidation, and cash for signatures are heating up political battles in conservative Utah, where voters are poised to weigh hot-button ballot initiatives — including the legalization of medical cannabis — for the first time in over a decade.

FILE – In this Tuesday, May 8, 2018, file photo, Desiree Hennessy attends to her adopted son Hestevan, who has cerebral palsy and suffers from chronic nerve pain, seizure disorder during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City, as supporters of a medical-marijuana ballot initiative fend off opponents’ increasing efforts to keep them off the ballot. The Utah Patients Coalition said Friday, May 11, 2018, that canvassers are misleading people into taking their names off the petition. Opponents with Drug Safe Utah deny using any fraudulent claims to make their case. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Four initiatives have collected enough signatures to make the November ballot: approving medical cannabis, Medicaid expansion, political candidate nominations and redistricting.

But opponents have been knocking on doors asking people to withdraw their support, and Utah law lets them target a few areas where support is weaker.

The last-ditch push ends Tuesday, May 15, 2018, which is the last day that names can be removed, and the count will begin to see if it tipped the balance.

The spats come as groups turn to voters after years of trying to persuade conservative lawmakers to see things their way. The issues poised to make the ballot generally have strong support in voter polls, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

“Utahns on a couple of these key issues are wanting to take bigger steps than the Legislature has made and they feel like they have the power to do it,” he said.

A high bar requiring signature-gathering thresholds in nearly every county has helped sideline the option of initiatives for 14 years, but this year things are different. Aided by shifting demographics, the organizing power of social media and motivated donors, groups backing four separate issues have turned in enough signatures to make the ballot.

While tug-of-wars over signature gathering are common, the last-minute ferocity is unusual, said Josh Altic with the vote-tracking site Ballotpedia.

Medical cannabis has been the biggest hotspot.

“All of a sudden, we’re up against these huge, huge lobbying groups,” said Doug Rice, a retired firefighter who fought back tears in an early May 2018 interview as he talked about the proposal he supports to help treat his daughter’s epilepsy.

The Utah Patients Coalition is threatening to sue after obtaining cellphone video of opposition canvassers using what they call deceitful, high-pressure tactics to flip petition-signers, like telling them their signature may have been forged.

In this Tuesday, May 8, 2018, photo, shows Willow Hennessy sittings on the wheelchair of her adopted brother Hestevan, who has cerebral palsy and suffers from chronic nerve pain, seizure disorder during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City, as supporters of a medical-marijuana ballot initiative fend off opponents’ increasing efforts to keep them off the ballot. The Utah Patients Coalition said Friday, May 11, 2018, that canvassers are misleading people into taking their names off the petition. Opponents with Drug Safe Utah deny using any fraudulent claims to make their case. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Opponents at the Utah Medical Association have disavowed canvassers captured on video and insisted the signature removal campaign is a valid way to express their concerns, including that the proposal could lead to recreational cannabis — something advocates strongly deny.

Opponents fired back with their own complaint, alleging a medical-marijuana advocate tried to illegally buy voter data. The Utah Patients Coalition says the man was trying to buy publicly available lists from a hired canvassing firm to counteract what they call misinformation.

While 30 other states have legalized some form of medical cannabis, it’s a tougher road in Utah. A majority of residents belong to the Mormon church, whose leaders recently reiterated their opposition to the marijuana proposal.

It’s not the only issue where there’s a firestorm. A pitched battle within the state’s dominant Republican party is also coming to the ballot as the moderate Count My Vote asks to make it easier for candidates to bypass the party’s far-right-leaning caucus-and-convention system.

But conservatives aren’t going down without a fight. The group Keep my Voice asked people to remove their signatures, using a robocall implying that voters had been tricked into signing. Infuriated opponents fired back with allegations of intimidation.

A handful of hired canvassers have been charged with forging signatures on petitions for a few issues, but those names were tossed out.

The dust-ups have drawn in leaders like Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and the Salt Lake County District Attorney, Democrat Sim Gill, who have said the issues should go to the ballot so voters can decide.

“We are nice in Utah, but when it comes to these initiatives lines get set pretty quickly,” Hinckley Institute director Perry said. “These are emotional issues.”

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2 Comments

  1. This is the only place I have heard of people trying to get people that signed a petition for medical cannabis to unsign them. I have never even heard of it being legal anywhere else. This is divisive and mean spirited. You people that are trying to block it are evil incarnate.

  2. Daniel evans on

    I live in Utah, and you would be appalled at what is going on here to stop this initiative from even going to a vote. The LDS church has issued a press release from their lawyers, denouncing legalization with a myriad of false or misleading claims. The worst part is that much of the Utah media will only cover news that supports the view of the LDS church, and shows cannabis in a bad light. This means that a good percentage of Utahns only hear about the bad side of cannabis legalization, and none of the positive. Even with the deck stacked against legalization, support for the initiative is around 75%

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