How the Utah Legislature Worked with Big Marijuana to Subvert the Will of Voters

Angela Bacca
Nov 13, 2018 · 13 min read
(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photos) Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, a trained pharmacist explains plans for how dispensing of medical marijuana would work during an announcement for a “shared vision” for cannabis policy at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Read Tribune original article.

This article was produced with support from the Cannabis Museum’s Investigative Fund. If you would like to support investigative journalism in the cannabis industry during this pivotal transition please make a donation to the Cannabis Museum- Investigative Fund.

Proposition 2 passed and Utah is officially the 32nd state in the nation to legalize medical cannabis, but the details of the law are still up in the air as the lame duck legislature is now scrambling to pass a bill to replace it in a rushed December special session, without patient or expert input.

When Utah’s Medical Cannabis Act qualified for placement on the midterm ballot, a deep-pocketed coalition calling itself Drug Safe Utah emerged to invalidate it. Comprised of the Utah Medical Association, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Salt Lake DEA Office, local chambers of commerce and other law enforcement groups, Drug Safe Utah threatened to unleash a $5–10 million “war” against patient advocates if they did not pull the initiative. The patients didn’t comply, and Drug Safe Utah used their considerable funds to flood the airwaves with blatantly false information and warnings that “Big Marijuana” was coming to prey on Utah children. When Proposition 2 started to feel inevitable, they changed their tune and negotiated directly with the embodiment of “Big Marijuana”, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

Just as mail-in ballots were being released, Drug Safe Utah and the Libertas Institute, which ran the ballot initiative campaign with MPP’s support as Utah Patients Coalition, announced they had conducted private meetings where they reached a “compromise”. Both sides would stop campaigning and instead pass the replacement legislation in a special session after the election. The polls dropped to their lowest ever, 51 percent.

While MPP and the government and church-led opposition were at the negotiating table, neither of the patient groups that had spearheaded the issue, the Epilepsy Association of Utah (EAU) nor Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), were brought in to advocate for patients.

After the compromise was announced, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) released its detailed rating of both Proposition 2 and the replacement. The overall score took Utah’s medical cannabis prospects from a D to an F. Patients believe the failing grade suggests the proposed program will be non-functional. Although it was presented as a done deal, now Libertas and state legislators are suggesting “the cake isn’t baked” and are working to incorporate input from the public.

“TRUCE believes that if the legislature’s goal here really is for patients to have proper safe access to medical cannabis, Utah patients deserve at least a passing grade,” said Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE. “My biggest concern is that this replacement bill was born in fear and designed to fail. More concessions were made to the financially incentivized opposition to safe access. Under this replacement legislation Utah’s sick are treated as ‘criminals until proven patients.’ It is important that when crafting a quality program that is patient-centric, we call on experts from the field for guidance. Utah is moving forward with cannabis policy and should create meaningful legislation rather than public messaging stunts.”

Despite Speaker of the House Greg Hughes’s insistence he initiated the compromise early this fall, it was actually the LDS Church lobbyist and former Republican speaker of the house Marty Stephens in June 2018.

“Marty wanted to come up with a compromise we could agree on so we could have a special session and indicate to the public there was no need to vote on a ballot initiative because they had taken care of it. He said he wanted us to move quickly because ‘War was coming,” says Christine Stenquist, who attended two separate meetings with Stephens.

Doug Rice, interim president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah (EAU), member of TRUCE and also a chief petitioner of Proposition 2 was in this first June meeting between advocates and Church representatives and confirms Stenquist’s assertion.

“[Stephens] said we need to get this taken care of right away if it is going to happen at all because ‘War is coming’,” said Rice.

Nicole Young, executive director of EAU was also present and says that Stephens made the comment “more than once.”

“He said, ‘War is coming, so prepare’,” Young said.

Stephens has not responded to a request to confirm or deny the statement.

Ashley Rice and father Doug Rice of Epilepsy Association of Utah advocating for medical cannabis in the Utah Senate. Photo source: Deseret News.

Rice said he tried to educate Stephens about the treatment epileptic patients like his daughter Ashley need. He offered him studies and information, but to Rice he seemed uninterested.

“I pretty much felt like I was dismissed. It seemed to me Marty was focused on being able to bring TRUCE on board to the Church’s side of things. He could really care less about the Epilepsy Association,” he said.

After the meeting Stephens outlined the LDS Church’s demands in an email to Stenquist, Rice and other members of the TRUCE board dated June 7, 2018. Copied on the message was Juan T. Becerra, who had also attended the meeting as a representative of the Church. Becerra is a former FBI agent turned private defense contractor now doing public relations work for the Church. Before the meeting started, Becerra wrote down each of the patient advocates full legal names, presumably so he could conduct background checks.

“I’ve spent a lot of time since we met trying to see a path forward and how we could perhaps be of help to each other and avoid this long political and legislative fight that lies ahead if we cannot find some room to work together,” Stephens wrote. “I also have given considerable thought to how and when we involve elected officials, the medical association, and other community groups that are lining up both in opposition and in support of the initiative and are gearing up for the campaign.”

Stephens went on to list three goals; (1) protect Utah’s children, (2) allow access to those with “true medical needs” to “medications including marijuana-based medications” and, (3) “Prevent, if possible, the 5–10 million dollar waste of money in fighting about this initiative by finding a compromise that will allow the truly medical needy access to the medications they need, while strictly controlling access to minors and those without medical needs.”

The list of goals was followed by a list of propositions. He wanted more confidential meetings where they could come up with a document of guidelines for a compromise before he went on vacation in July. There were no guarantees, however, as the Church cannot make legislation.

“If we are able to do that, I will take that document to Church leaders, the UMA, the S.L. Chamber, legislative leaders and the Governor’s office and try to get their support as well… The supporting groups would then call upon the Governor to call a special session of the legislature to draft a bill which would be based on the principles in our joint agreement.”

He summed up his request with, “If we are able to accomplish all of that before the election we would all join forces in messaging that the medical needs have been taken care of and that there is no need for the initiative… Time is of the essence in seeing if we can come to an agreement. There are things organizing behind the scenes that will make a compromise difficult in the not too distant future.”

Stenquist says she was shocked by the “war” terminology and perceived threat in the email’s closing. She says she and Rice represent the patient community and they didn’t like that they were being pressured to give up the initiative before citizens had a chance to vote, especially with no explicit guarantees patients’ needs would be met. She says it sounded to her that the goal was simply to kill the initiative by any means necessary.

“We went in there concerned about what happens in 2019 after the initiative passed,” Stenquist said.

Over the course of just two short meetings, the communications broke down completely and Stephens decided to step away from the negotiating table. Stenquist opted not to share the Church’s plan with the public.

“For the longest time I was counseled by various sources to release that email, to send it to the press, but I didn’t want to burn an opportunity for us to work with such a powerful stakeholder here in Utah, especially because a lot of the patients I advocate for and with are very active and devout LDS. I felt I was going in there representing more than just myself, it was those patients as well as the non-LDS members,” Stenquist said.

Christine Stenquist and TRUCE advocates address the legislature. Source: Salt Lake Tribune.

Over the summer, the lie-based propaganda from Drug Safe Utah picked up, the war had arrived and Stenquist’s group of mostly-volunteer patient advocates started working overtime trying to counter the misinformation. Toward the end of the summer, Stenquist caught wind of secret talks going on. With or without her or the patient advocates, a compromise was going to be announced just before early voting started.

By the time the “compromise” had gone public, Speaker of the House Greg Hughes claimed it was entirely his idea, not the Church’s.

“I went to meet with Marty Stephens, who is the government relations person for the LDS Church… I asked him to come to my office. It was my invitation,” Speaker Hughes said in an interim meeting of the minority caucus at the capitol on October 17.

Hughes claimed that in his conversations with MPP, Libertas Institute and Drug Safe Utah, he had seen “quite a bit of overlap, in terms of common ground.”

“I thought it was at least worth trying to see if we could bring parties together, start small, and see if you can agree on something like, I don’t know, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west?” Hughes joked.

He says he brought all the stakeholders to the table and that inviting Libertas to represent the patient community was sufficient.

“The reason I asked for Connor Boyack and DJ Schanz [president and vice president of Libertas and campaign director of Utah Patients Coalition, respectively] to meet with me first, is in the last four years, they have been the tip of the spear. I haven’t seen a lot of daylight space between say Connor, DJ and even TRUCE. There really has been kind of a common cause that has gone on up here,” Hughes said.

The Epilepsy Association of Utah, Rice’s group which led the efforts for Charlee’s Law in 2014, was not invited to the negotiating table. Stenquist and TRUCE were informed of the meetings at the last minute, and in a text messaging exchange between Speaker Hughes and Stenquist, Hughes dismissed Stenquist pre-emptively from the negotiating table for requesting that she be allowed to bring former Republican state senator Steve Urquhart with her as support. Urquhart was a sponsor of Charlee’s Law with extensive knowledge of the topic. Hughes says he felt Stenquist did not receive his invitation “in the spirit in which it was offered”, although he admits “the lack of trust is well earned.”

In the end the compromise was reached with only one woman in the room, the Utah Medical Association’s Michelle McOmber, who has a background in real estate and public relations and not herbalism, medicine or science. No medical cannabis experts or patient groups were represented beyond the Libertas and MPP-led campaign.

When the press conference to announce the replacement was held, Libertas flew former senator Mark Madsen from his new home in Lima to attend, a shocking turn of events considering his initial reaction to the Church’s negotiation tactics in June. Madsen attempted to pass similar legislation through the legislature twice while in office before vowing to help patients take it to the ballot when he retired. When Madsen read Marty Stephens’s June email he responded forcefully.

“Do not negotiate with the enemy when you have the advantage, especially when your victory is in sight. Basic Sun Tsu,” wrote Madsen in an August 2 email. And then, in all capitals, “This is not the time to negotiate. Fight your emotions, do not relent, keep taking territory and keep the enemy on their heels. Do not let them tie up your energies in negotiations. They have more resources but we have momentum and right on our side. They are more able to expend resources on negotiations and warfare simultaneously. You cannot. No mercy. No quarter. They gave none when they had the blade to our throat. Don’t forget how they work or believe for a minute they will not put the blade in your back to get what they want, whatever they promise to get you to let down your guard. They are zealots that make us pale in comparison, and their righteous ends- as they imagine them- justify any means… Beware them asking you to sign a document and then keep it secret.”

Madsen was paid a $2,000 speaker fee to attend the press conference announcing the compromise.

Stenquist says when the compromise-replacement bill was announced she realized this was the Church’s plan all along, with or without the patients.

“They are claiming it was Speaker Hughes who came out with this compromise, but Marty spelled it out in the email back in June. This is a plan the Church was leaning towards and tried to execute on their own,” Stenquist said. “They were talking about killing the initiative before the vote, so I don’t believe this was Speaker Hughes’s idea. I believe it was the Church’s idea and they needed a jockey to ride that pony.”

Hughes has been quite concerned about public perception of the opposition and has been making a point of explaining in the local media that he originated the compromise, not the Church. He dismisses any idea that the announcement of a compromise was intended to derail the initiative.

Although Drug Safe Utah threatened via LDS Church lobbyist Marty Stephens to spend $5–10 million to defeat Proposition 2, according to the Utah Secretary of State total contributions were just $900,000 compared to the less than $500,000 raised by Utah Patients Coalition (the Libertas-led campaign for Prop 2). Of the money raised by Drug Safe Utah, $50,000 was moved to another political issue committee (PIC) “The Truth About Proposition 2”, which paid for a marketing stunt involving a Uhaul truck driven by local police advertising marijuana sales to children in front of schools. Another $7,500 was sent to an affiliated out-of-state group Drug Free Idaho.

While spearheading Drug Safe Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not contribute directly but instead via a who’s who of the state’s prominent Mormon businessmen; Nearly $270,000 came directly from organizations owned by pharmaceutical company owner and real estate developer Walter J. Plumb III in cash and in-kind services. Donations between $10,000 and $100,000 rolled in from Mitt Romney’s son Joshua and his affiliates, the estate of the former Utah Jazz and car dealership owner Larry. H Miller, wife of multi-millionaire NuSkin founder Kalleen Lund and real estate developers Roger Boyer, Kem Gardner, Keller Investments and John R Miller Enterprises (whose other company, Woodbury Strategic Partners received some of this money back in rent paid by the campaign). Also according to filings with the state, the Drug Enforcement Administration Salt Lake Metro Narcotics Task Force is listed as an affiliated organization with the Drug Safe Utah PIC.

Libertas has complained that the Utah Patients Coalition campaign was under-funded by MPP, despite MPP having contributed nearly $300,000 to the efforts in cash and in-kind services, according to financial disclosures with the Utah Secretary of State. Libertas contributed $135,000 to the campaign itself since 2017, in addition to $40,000 from Salt Lake philanthropist Linda Fontenot, $46,000 from Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, $50,000 from the Our Story PAC and $50,000 from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. The vast majority of the campaign’s donors were under $100, leaving Utah Patients Coalition drastically underfunded in a war with Drug Safe Utah.

Just one day before the compromise was announced, Drug Safe Utah spent $241,000 on ad buys for the month of October. They continued to take and spend large scale donations after the compromise was announced. MPP and Libertas essentially stopped campaigning.

A Drug Safe Utah commercial warns “Big Marijuana is coming”

Marijuana Policy Project and Libertas insist that internal polling showed a massive drop in support when the Church came out directly in opposition to Proposition 2 in late August, although they have not released this polling to the public. They both suggest this is what brought them to the negotiating table. MPP says they were relying on a larger-scale donor to fund both the polling and the campaigns across the country this year and, after viewing these polls, decided the better return on investment was Michigan’s legalization campaign. It was per this funder’s suggestion that money be routed away from Utah. And, the Church was already dangling the option of a pre-emptive compromise months before the August poll that would ensure business licenses would be made available.

But no public polls reflected MPP’s internal polling until after the compromise was reached. Because of the conflicting messaging about what is on the ballot versus what will be passed to replace it, or instead of it, a plan was in the works well before Utah citizens have an ability to prove or disprove any polling. What this replacement plan looks like is still up in the air, except that with less licenses for private business the value of the licenses has already gone up before the vote, should Big Marijuana MPP donors seek them.

With the state planning on competing against a much smaller pool of private industry owners through a central fill pharmacy, Big Government got what it wanted too. This wouldn’t be the first time the Utah state legislature has monopolized an industry using government funds, the primary example being Utah’s regulatory system for alcohol. According to an analysis by the Libertas Institute, the state uses over $1 billion a year in taxpayer resources to fund state run businesses, almost all of which have recent histories of corruption, misappropriation or embezzlement scandals with little public oversight.

Patients like EAU’s Rice and TRUCE’s Stenquist say that despite being left out of the negotiations, they will continue to educate the public so that Utah patients eventually get a workable law. They do not believe their needs will be met by the evolving replacement bill.

“I wish I could have more trust in the state legislature and Marijuana Policy Project to do the right thing for Utah patients, but the unfortunate reality is that they all have their own financial incentives. This is about doing what is right for the suffering patients of Utah, and I believe we deserve the greatest influence when it comes to negotiations about our treatment options,” Stenquist concludes.

This article was produced with support from the Cannabis Museum’s Investigative Fund. If you would like to support investigative journalism in the cannabis industry during this pivotal transition please make a donation to the Cannabis Museum- Investigative Fund.

Angela Bacca

Written by

Angela Bacca is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance journalist, author, editor and political strategist. Twitter @angelabacca / angelabacca@gmail.com

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