SALT LAKE CITY — The political struggle over Proposition 2 in 2018 was frequently contentious, litigious, and sometimes even personal, peppered with accusations of deceitful tactics, and even formal complaints filed with state elections officials.
In large part because of that bitter fight, prominent proponents and detractors of the ballot initiative would later admit a measure of surprise that they were able to come together in the fall and agree to a compromise medical marijuana bill put forward by Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes. The measure would go on to pass overwhelmingly in the Utah Legislature.
The bill was crafted over the course of dozens of hours of private negotiations convened by Hughes after, he says, he noticed there was enough common ground obscured among opposing positions to build a tentative consensus. However, it has not been without criticism from some patients' groups that have called it an undemocratic power grab made against the state's voters.
As he prepared to to leave office as speaker of the House, Hughes sat down with the Deseret News late last month to discuss the successes and controversies of Utah's medical marijuana grand bargain, and what it took to transform it from an uncertain idea into the state's new reality.
Deseret News: First off is the easiest question — tell me how you're feeling as you leave office.
Greg Hughes: I am sad, but I'm also happy. Really I'm feeling both emotions at the same time. I've developed such incredible relationships with colleagues. … Being a lawmaker, not picking your friends, not picking your colleagues, but having people from 75 districts coming together with this common denominator, wanting to be a public servant, and making the place better than you found it, but having very different ideas in many cases about what that means. …
So my biggest takeaway emotionally, it will be how much I miss my friends and the people that I've worked with, and how much I've enjoyed being around doing all this stuff we've done. But the part that I feel excited about is, I really feel like I gave it all I can give.
DN: It might be one of the worst-kept secrets that perhaps you are interested in running for governor. Are you?
Hughes: Look, I'm definitely looking at that. Now I was — I was very careful because I truly did not want to be preoccupied or to discuss or think about an open seat, open gubernatorial race in '20 when we had work to do, when we had a job to do. If you start looking too far ahead, it can color the decisions you make now in terms of, are people going to be mad, would that hurt my electability in the future? …
And I've tried to live in the moment and really take on challenges we've had in the House and the Legislature, without regard to those types of things. … So I have purposely not dwelt on it. I've not thought about it, not planned for it. I'm more contemplative right now. I mean, I don't have the next battle right in front of me. …
It's not an announcement, I'm not announcing anything right now. It'd be hard to sustain an announced race two years out, or whatever it is. … And, you know, as much as I'd like to think people know who the speaker of the House is, it's not as well-known of a position and so you'd … have to see if you could raise the funds necessary to put on a real statewide race. So I don't know the answers to that right now. But I'm willing to look.
DN: State legislative leaders around the country who are leaving office — I'm sure most of them have been much less busy than you have been. Let's talk about the last few months and what you have accomplished with medical cannabis. How did this agreement come together?
Hughes: So at the end of the summer … the campaign against Proposition 2 was starting to form, and so I was part of a letter — a letter (signed by) people that were opposed to Proposition 2 as written.
But … I was hearing sentiment from those who were opposed to Proposition 2 that were saying things like … "We can support medical cannabis, if we knew … (it) was a licensed physician that was … recommending the dosage. If we could have a pharmacist, the licensed pharmacist would be there to put the recommended dosage together for the patient, we could actually support a program like that."
… I had not heard that before August. I'd heard more blanket opposition to cannabis. Certainly the Utah Medical Association had questioned its efficacy, and so I was not — I had never heard that before. So … I'm saying to my chief of staff ... "Why isn't that a bigger deal? There's been a real pivot that's just happened here and nobody's drilling down on that. Everyone's still talking past each other."
… So (my chief of staff) Greg Hartley said … you could actually bring everyone together, you could get this done. … So I agreed that we could try but … these are sizable wars. …
So I met with Marty Stephens … the government relations person for the LDS Church. And he'd been one of the voices that's part of this whole opposition to Prop. 2, and I just wanted to know, was there a qualification in (his) position? … Is that when the federal government allows it, or is there something else that you mean that's beyond the control of what we're doing, that you're qualifying that with? And I just wanted to know. And he said, “No, it isn't. If we had that kind of attention with medical professionals, we could support it.”
Now again, that was not what I heard in the past, so I thought that was progress. …
Then I want to meet with Connor Boyack and DJ Schanz, as they were the ones that wrote Prop. 2, are the ones that marshaled the signatures to qualify for the ballot, they're the ones raising the funds for the campaign and running the campaign — so clearly the tip of the spear in terms of the pro-Prop. 2 side.
And I asked them … "Medical cannabis, you support it, but more broadly (would) you just be more comfortable if … marijuana was just recreational as well?" … I said, "It'd be consistent with a libertarian to believe that, but is that kind of the end goal? And is that what you're really after?"…
(They) said … this is beginning middle and end only about patient access.
So with that, with those kind of conversations, I thought, “OK, well then there can be overlap.”
But I wanted to start small. I've been criticized for that, about starting small, but if you fill that room of 20 people, with what had been discussed and how people were talking past one another — I already gave us … a low percentage chance of (succeeding), even if we started small.
And (I) tried to build out from there, but it was worth a try. We started small just to see if we could find just some common ground between, I thought, two of the strongest stakeholders, and if we could find that, then we can start to bring in more stakeholders. And so it took some time but we got there. … Once we got to an agreement — not agreement, but that common (ground) … that's when Utah Medical Association (was invited).
We actually invited Christine Stenquist and TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education) to come. She wanted to bring … people to come whose stated goal, you know, was to not have an agreement.
It was not going to be conducive to that. But I told Christine, if that's what you're insisting on, I think what we'll do is we'll have broader public hearings, formal and informal, and that's where you can kind of really weigh in. But in this part, when we're starting to fan out, we've got the governor's office (and the Senate now coming) in … it's really to try and see if it's even possible to problem-solve. …
Long story short, that's what we worked on, we got to that agreement. It was not easy. It took so long, and after we even got to that … we wanted to be very transparent for the voters saying, “Look, if it passes or fails, we think we have found enough common ground … (that) this common ground agreement needs to be the law and we need to provide this patient access. …”
Well, it ends up passing, right? But there became this immediate narrative that it was everybody that voted for Prop. 2 opposed the agreement. And I'm not saying that I know the minds of everyone that voted. But I'm saying those critics don't either.
DN: Do you feel like the program would be more politically stable long term if, for example, TRUCE founder Christine Stenquist had been at the table?
Hughes: I know that this agreement is a structurally stronger medical cannabis program (than Proposition 2) and a politically stronger medical cannabis program. …
As we were getting this done, and we were taking public comment, these weren't boxes we were checking. … We were not without patients who gave input. …
At the end of the day, it wasn't an (exclusion of TRUCE) because I knew that TRUCE would have opportunities, in our formal and informal hearings to, again, share perspectives we didn't have at that time. …
DN: Are you worried or concerned about patient access?
Hughes: Well, it's the unknown. We're in a space where the state's never been before, so everything has to be implemented. So you don't have any certainty.
We're the first state to look at a central (fill pharmacy). … There's been some concern that because that's not been done before, (or) could be perilous, or that could be not legal and the feds could come in and change it.
Two things about that. One, I would argue that states that allow for recreational marijuana are violating the Controlled Substances Act in such an egregious way that a state trying to find safe parameters and ways for patients to dialogue with physicians and pharmacists — this isn't the fight to have, federal government. …
But second to that, we contemplated that in the event that would ever happen, you can step up more walk-up specialized pharmacies. …
I've seen some chatter with (attorney and former Salt Lake City Mayor) Rocky Anderson about, this is — this is against federal law. Well, no kidding. I mean, I think it's the whole world we're in right now.
DN: Give us an idea of what it was like inside that negotiating room. There was a lot of time that went into the negotiations. Was there ever a point where it seemed like people were going to walk away?
Hughes: Yeah, there was, there (were) many of those.
The plant itself — one side was not having whole plants in there, because it gets completely away from a dose-able, measurable amount, in their minds. … The blister packs solve the issue of dosage and amounts and things like that.
Edibles — I'm so well-versed in this now, I can give you both sides of that. Edibles — you have a brownie or cookie, what's your dose? A bite a day? Is it two bites a day? What is it you're supposed to take? And to the extent that we don't want Joe Camel cartoon characters, or Joe Camel on cigarettes, advertising cigarettes, what's a brownie and a cookie going to look like to young people?
That's the one side. The other side is (with) edibles, you can actually dose to an accurate amount, even if it's a cookie or a small brownie or something. And you actually know how much you're getting. …
So this is how we do it … where you got the gummies that are gelatinous. And we didn't want them to be shaped like bears or other things, so they're cubes. But also (we included) lozenges, but then we didn't want the baked items (to be legal), the baked goods, so you have some specific edibles that are allowed, but not all edibles. And so that was a big battle. …
Including autism on the malady list (was also a battle). … There are doctors that say if a child's having over 100 seizures a day, you can talk to me all day about (the developing) brain, but I'm telling you, it's debilitating.
They are saying — they're having hundreds of (seizures), we're going to take our chances on everything else, because that child needs relief. I have sympathy for that. That makes sense to me. …
But there's doctors out there that are very adamant about (protecting against child access). …
So the solution was … the Compassionate Use Board is meant (so) that … if you have a diagnosis that's outside of (the malady list), it's a rare disease or something else, you could always go to this Compassionate Use Board to make your case. We have all those minors (now required to visit the) Compassionate Use Board and … we put two more pediatricians on that Compassionate Use Board to really scrutinize the use of medical cannabis for children.
So that is our attempt to try and put those safeguards around the process.
DN: So how easy or difficult was it to get members of the House on board with this agreement? Obviously there were a lot of complex factors at play.
Hughes: Easier than you would think. And I'll tell you why. … If you don't have any agreement, Prop. 2 as passed is going to require legislative action. And that would be consistent with every state that had a medical cannabis bill pass. It was going to come, and … there were things you're gonna have to deal with, if Prop. 2 passed.
If it didn't pass, it's not going away. And you're going to deal with medical cannabis because it didn't pass.
So I think they saw this as addressing a solution now in the right way that — that they're not going to have to clean up. … So actually it wasn't (difficult).
DN: Certainly there have been some groups that have argued that this bill was an inappropriate usurpation of the people's will. What would be your message to Utahns in response to that argument?
Hughes: We're lawmakers and we dive into statutes and we amend laws.
Every proposition that's ever passed, it's been law as (much as) any other statute passed … but it doesn't remove the lawmaker from its relationship with the state code and its ability to make laws. So this is something we've always had, and something that's worked.
What I'm proud about with this one is, instead of revisiting the proposition well after it's passed, without announcement, in the subsequent session, we were very clear on Oct. 4 our way forward. …
So I actually think it's better than the other ways that propositions have been changed by lawmakers.
DN: You mentioned in the past that this medical marijuana agreement has been a bit of a feather in the cap for you. Do you consider it your culminating accomplishment?
Hughes: I still think Operation Rio Grande. For me, (on medical cannabis) I worked within my lanes in terms of helping forge an agreement. …35 comments on this story
But Operation Rio Grande, I set up a storefront in the summer of ’17, in the heart of it. And if you wanted to come meet me on any issue related to the state, you had to come through that area and talk to me, and we (could) see drug dealers across the street, twisting spice joints and selling them to cars, and people on bikes, and other people. …
The carnage, the lawlessness, the things that were going on, I don't think this state understood very broadly. … For me, it was outside my lane, it's not what I typically do, but I'm very proud of how that is coming in. There's much work still left to be done. But I think that's the one that if I think about all the things I've done, at least it's an outlier because of its process.