By Julian Hattem
SALT LAKE CITY — Medical marijuana backers in Utah are gearing up for an intense battle that could test the nationwide trend in support of medicinal pot.
Even as support for medical cannabis has taken hold across the country — including in deeply conservative states like Oklahoma and Arkansas — the obstacles in Utah are steep.
Supporters will be facing opposition from Republican leaders who enjoy overwhelming political majorities as well as from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The initiative appears headed to the November ballot after opponents on Monday withdrew their court challenge, which had been the last legal barrier. Opponents could still refile a challenge.
Polling has shown relatively strong support for the initiative, although it’s weakened in recent months. Public opinion could degrade further if opponents can magnify their criticism before November.
David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, gave the measure 50-50 odds of passing.
“This is a Republican state, a conservative state, and a moderate Republican governor and a very conservative Republican legislature are opposed to it,” he said. “And then there’s the LDS church that’s involved. For some people I think that position is going to be definitive.”
Magleby said the church’s involvement on medical marijuana has been more intense than on any other political issue in its home state in the last two decades.
Nationwide, 31 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. Oklahoma voters approved a measure on medicinal cannabis last week.
In Utah, supporters are planning to convince voters by focusing on how they’ve narrowly tailored their proposal. People with medical approval couldn’t smoke marijuana if the initiative passed, but instead would be limited to edible forms such as candy, topical forms like lotions or balms and oil in electronic cigarettes.