SALT LAKE CITY — With a bill to legalize medical marijuana running into opposition in the Utah Legislature, a group of patients who support the legislation say they will put the issue directly to the people.
Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE (Together For Responsible Use and Cannabis Education), said patients such as herself "fought legislatively to have our voices heard."
But they "can't wait for legislators to become comfortable with my medication or with my (multiple sclerosis) friend’s medication or with a cancer patient’s medication," Stenquist said.
Several wealthy and high-profile Utahns also signaled their support for the initiative in a letter, including Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, tech founder and philanthropist Bruce Bastian and campaign mailing firm owner Peter Valcarce.
"I think this is an issue where the people are out ahead of the Legislature," said David Kirkham, a businessman and Utah tea party leader who joined Stenquist at the news conference. "And that's why we have a citizen's ballot."
Two competing medical cannabis bills are making their way through the Legislature this year.
SB89, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, would legalize medical use of CBD, or cannabidiol, for certain patients.
CBD is one of at least 85 active compounds in marijuana.
SB73, sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, would legalize what advocates call "whole plant access."
Specifically, it would authorize the use of medication made with THC, which is the active compound in marijuana that causes the "high." However, whole plant advocates say it's THC — not CBD — that provides relief for medical conditions like chronic pain and ALS and that it can be purified to be non-psychoactive.
Stenquist pointed out that no patients have advocated for the Vickers-Daw bill and called it an "effort to undermine Sen. Madsen's bill."
"The proposal truly does nothing for us patients," Stenquist said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said earlier this month that it opposes to Madsen's bill due to "concern about the unintended consequences that may accompany the legalization of medical marijuana," according to church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
That announcement threw the viability of Madsen's bill into question, something Stenquist said upset "a lot of us patients."
"To be honest, everything that I'm hearing from the House is that it's dead on arrival," she said.
Recent polls show that most Utahns are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
A December 2015 poll by UtahPolicy reported that 61 percent of Utahns favor legalizing medical marijuana.
Thirty-six percent said they opposed it, and 2 percent said they weren't sure.
Stenquist said nobody from her group has officially filed an application with the lieutenant governor to begin the ballot initiative process yet.
Jason Perry, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said the process isn't easy.
Utahns have voted on 18 ballot initiatives since 1960. Four have passed.
"If you want to be successful at an effort like this, you need a tremendous amount of publicity, a tremendous amount of support, and you need a significant amount of money to get people out there to start gathering signatures," Perry said.
To put an initiative on the ballot, sponsors must gather 101,744 signatures — equal to 10 percent of all votes cast in the most recent presidential election statewide — by April 15.
That's a tight timeline, Kirkham acknowledged.
Based on other states, he estimated the ballot initiative could cost about $1 million.
"We have great allies," Kirkham said. "Money is not our problem. Gathering signatures is not our problem. Time is our problem."
Madsen said he "would really rather that (ballot initiative) just be a last, last resort" but said he would ultimately support the initiative if his bill were to fail.
He held a public meeting Tuesday afternoon to address lawmakers' concerns about his bill.
Afterward, Madsen acknowledged that the LDS Church's opposition to his bill was a blow but said its statement was not a "moral imperative."
"The church has articulated their concerns, so I can go to my colleagues and say, 'As far as this concern goes, here's how I'd address it,'" Madsen said.
The Utah Medical Association opposes Madsen's bill, stating that medical marijuana has not been adequately studied.
The American Medical Association, the largest professional organization representing physicians in the U.S., has neither endorsed nor opposed legalization.
Also Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services committee advanced a resolution calling on Congress to reclassify marijuana as a federal schedule II drug.
The resolution's sponsor, Rep. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, said that as a federal Schedule I drug, marijuana is considered to have no medical use and research on it is not allowed.
Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and ecstasy.
The American Medical Association also supports reclassifying marijuana to support research into its medical benefits.