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.
“The idea that it’s not smoked is a very Utah thing,” said DJ Schanz, the director of the Utah Patients Coalition which is campaigning for the initiative. “That’s something that Utahns have a high aversion to; not so much the rest of the country.”
To sell the plan, Schanz said campaigners will highlight individual stories of patients who’d benefit from marijuana treatment, including members of the LDS church.
Mormon support will be critical in Utah, where roughly two-thirds of the population is a member of the socially conservative church.
Twice this year, the church has released statements worrying about the impact of the initiative. In May, its statement was attached to a seven-page legal memorandum compiled by an outside firm outlining the “serious adverse consequences” if the initiative were approved.
A church spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about its plans Tuesday.
Opponents say the initiative is a loophole-ridden step toward legalization of recreational marijuana.
“Anybody who believed that this won’t lead to much wider abuse of marijuana is just not dealing with reality,” said Blake Ostler, an attorney working with opponents of the initiative.
Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, has said he’s not opposed to the notion of medical marijuana generally but is against the initiative as written. He says it doesn’t allow room for proper study and would put the state at odds with federal law’s prohibition on marijuana.
Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature this year approved use of medical marijuana for terminally ill patients with six months to live, but advocates say that’s too narrow to be practical.
State officials have said the timeframe envisioned by the initiative is too fast for them to implement if passed.
Schanz dismissed those concerns.
“Luckily, there have been 30 other states that have implemented programs,” he said. “They don’t have to reinvent the wheel on any of this.”