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State capital building in Salt Lake City, Utah.

As the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange was being implemented, Utah had its own health insurance exchange for small business, which faced an uncertain future. Joel Ario, a national expert, come to Utah to help work through potential conflicts and problems. Previously an insurance commissioner in two states, as part of the Obama administration he was deeply familiar with the federal health insurance exchange.

After spending a day in the Utah Capitol with our stakeholder group, Joel expressed his highly positive impression of how things had gone. He noted that representatives from all sides of the issues attended, everyone engaged productively without rancor or partisanship, and we achieved a laudable outcome. I told him this is just the way Utah works.

Utah is small enough that people know each other, but big enough that we can often design and implement our own destiny. And we have a secret sauce — the Utah Way. The Utah Way is built on identifying and including opposing parties, finding common ground, negotiating in good faith, reaching compromise and sticking to the deal.

The Utah Way was at work again earlier this month when the Legislature passed and Gov. Gary Herbert signed ground-breaking legislation permitting the use of medical marijuana.

Marijuana has become ever more popular as medicine. Some states have legalized the use of marijuana altogether. Others have permitted marijuana and its derivatives to be used as medicine.

Legalizing marijuana is a sticky wicket. Under federal law, it is illegal to grow, possess and distribute it. There are no scientific or market standards governing the proper uses and the potency of dosages of the plant and its constituents. Because it is federally prohibited, scientific study has been greatly limited. Thus, much of the opinion favoring medical marijuana is based on anecdotal evidence. However, that has not lessened the ardor of its proponents, many of whom claim to enjoy significant relief from pain and from difficult and sometimes debilitating conditions like chronic seizures.

In recent years, the Legislature entertained various proposals to legalize medical marijuana. But their efforts failed to satisfy the more determined proponents, who successfully obtained an affirmative vote of the people on their ballot initiative on Nov. 6.

The ballot initiative was flawed. It lacked direction on many crucial issues, created serious enforcement issues and failed to address legitimate concerns about regulating the quality, growth, distribution, enforcement, prescription and dosing of marijuana.

Fortunately, some initiative sponsors such as the Utah Patients Coalition and the Libertas Institute agreed to enter negotiations to address perceived flaws in the legislation, as did opponents like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Utah Medical Association. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes mediated these discussions. Through extensive negotiations, the parties worked together to improve the law. The resulting legislation stands as a model for the rest of the country, as does the multiparty collaboration that achieved it.

The Utah Way was also at work in 2010 when the Utah Compact was forged. Anti-immigration sentiment was at a high, and draconian legislation was in the offing. However, various social, religious, law enforcement and business leaders came together to enunciate core principles that any legal solution should include. Utah showed the way again as advocates engaged with reason and reciprocity, while other states got carried away in the political heat of the moment with bad policy prescriptions.

About the same time, the LGBT community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other former opponents reached a landmark compromise and joined in drafting and supporting enactment of Utah’s nondiscrimination law, which prohibits discrimination by employers or landlords against persons based on sexual orientation while it protects religious freedom for those who advocate against same-sex sexual relations and marriage.

11 comments on this story

Utah faces tough issues — like every other place on the planet. But we have something rare — a way of working together. Too often it happens later rather than sooner, but we do know how to collaborate.

Now we need to harness the Utah Way to address the critical issues before us, such as improving our air quality and our kids’ education, developing a better-trained workforce, reducing intergenerational poverty and homelessness, treating addiction, enabling more mass transit ridership and healing the divides between us.