Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News
Supporters, patients and legislators stand in solidarity with signs that read of illnesses and disorders that could potentially be treated with medical cannabis during a press conference held by the Utah Patients Coalition to promote the 2018 medical cannabis initiative campaign at Utah State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 26, 2017. The qualifying illnesses that a physician will be able to prescribe medical marijuana to are specific, but there is a wide range, including HIV, cancer, Autism, chronic pain, and Crohn's disease.

Sponsors of the marijuana initiative are submitting signatures for verification to place the proposal on the November ballot. Polls show strong support for medical marijuana, but some major groups and individuals oppose the initiative, including Gov. Gary Herbert, medical associations and law enforcement groups. This raises important questions.

Why are prominent people, law enforcement and medical groups opposed to the initiative in the face of strong public support?

Pignanelli: “Of course I know how to roll a Marijuana joint.” — Martha Stewart (Yes, that Martha Stewart)

Correctly sensing I am a heathen unable to judge anyone, Utahns of all stripes bombard me with questions regarding this ballot proposal. Despite the political complexities, I love the discussions. Efforts to loosen marijuana laws — especially for medicinal purposes — are supported by over 70 percent of Americans … and Utahns. The Brookings Institution concludes "the strong consensus among demographics that formed the foundation for many of today's stringent marijuana laws has crumbled." So politicos project the initiative is on a path to passage.

Few have actually reviewed the comprehensive initiative. Regulations and licensure for business operations are established. Physicians would be allowed to recommend cannabis — with some wiggle room — for a host of medical conditions, thereby implying marijuana is a valid treatment for the listed ailments. Affirmative defenses against criminal possession and use charges will exist (a defense attorney's dream). Police officers are forbidden to enforce federal laws whatsoever against consumers of weed. These and other items raise concerns among physicians, health professionals, law enforcement organizations and anyone horrified with legitimizing marijuana for whatever purposes.

These legitimate worries could be overwhelmed by the emotional advantages possessed by the proponents. Supporters are often eyewitnesses to the devastation of diseases and addiction to opioids they believe marijuana can diminish. The initiative is promising a poignant tussle across the state.

Cleary, this issue is fostering political consternations and dismay for many, and a doobie would be the relief suggested by some.

Webb: None of these well-informed individuals and groups would oppose use of marijuana components for medicine, if proper scientific research and clinical trials conclusively demonstrated the effectiveness and safety of cannabis as a drug.

But this initiative would make marijuana widely available without proper safeguards and without undergoing rigorous studies. Medical and law enforcement organizations have seen that, despite all sorts of anecdotes to the contrary, the consequences of marijuana misuse are devastating. Thus, they are appropriately opposed to this initiative.

Years ago, a close acquaintance of mine tragically suffered late-stage cancer. Having exhausted all traditional remedies, the desperate family sought non-conventional solutions, read innumerable testimonies and anecdotes about the benefits of laetrile (an extract of apricot seeds), and went to Mexico for treatments (contrary to the advice of their doctor). The outcome was not good.

We’re seeing a similar faddish approach today, as understandably desperate people search for hope and cures in marijuana, responding to stories of miraculous relief and healing. Proponents advocate marijuana as the remedy for myriad maladies, little of which is supported by the medical profession or scientific evidence. Let’s listen to the doctors on this one.

Does the initiative open the door to recreational marijuana?

Pignanelli: Passage or defeat of the initiative is not a reflection of acceptability of usage in today’s society. Although not a user, I am an investor in a company that performs research of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Similar economic situations are occurring across the country, which slowly dismantles objections to reasonable recreational use.

Webb: The initiative will absolutely lead to calls for recreational use. Proponents of “medical” marijuana seek to change attitudes about this hazardous substance. Marijuana is addictive and dangerous. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration reports that nearly a quarter of marijuana users in the country met diagnostic criteria for marijuana dependence. It would be a mistake to allow the beast’s nose in the tent.

Will the initiative get on the ballot and become law?

Pignanelli: The political bottom line is what action the LDS Church undertakes should the initiative (which prohibits smoking cannabis) receive ballot placement. This is not an easy deliberation. Many Mormons reside in states that allow, or soon will, medicinal and recreational uses of marijuana. Opioid abuse and chronic painful diseases are devastating local families. Yet, LDS leaders’ open disapproval removes the now assumed guarantee of passage, with election results difficult to predict.

Webb: It will most likely get on the ballot, where it should be voted down. The DEA (under both Democratic and Republicans administrations) classifies marijuana as a dangerous, illegal substance for good reasons.

Proponents can trot out studies (and lots of anecdotes) purportedly showing the benefits of marijuana use. But the medical community can provide far more legitimate studies showing a connection between cannabis and cancer, increased cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems, increased risk of a variety of mental health problems (there’s a reason it’s called “dope”), damage to fetuses, impaired driving problems, increased hospitalization rates and so forth.

16 comments on this story

Let’s not close the door on medical marijuana. But let’s do the studies and clinical trials and determine if a legitimate marijuana medicine exists or not. Much research is already under way, and the Legislature has taken positive steps toward that end. This proposal is premature and should be defeated.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: [email protected] Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is the president/CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah. Email: [email protected]