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Strange Tactics Emerge in Utah’s Medical Marijuana Legalization Fight

May 10, 2018
The canvasser showed up at the doorstep of a Utah voter and began speaking in a in a sing-song voice.

“We’re talking to voters…about the Utah Cannabis Act,” she started, before dropping her voice for dramatic effect. “Were you aware that what you signed was not (for) marijuana. It was cannabis.

'Were you aware that what you signed was not for marijuana? It was for cannabis.'
Prohibition activist, Salt Lake City

The resident paused. She fumbled with her cell phone. It was tilted sideways, apropos it seemed for this sideways conversation she was recording at her front door.

The voter had signed a petition for the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, a proposed November 2018 ballot initiative that would legalize a medical marijuana economy in the conservative state by permitting up to 15 dispensaries, including up to eight in Salt Lake City. They would be allowed to sell cannabis oils and buds, the latter for heating in dry herb vaporizers. The initiative would ban the sale of smokable joints.


Signature Removal Campaign

Utah Patients Coalition, a medical cannabis advocacy group with campaign contributions from the Marijuana Policy Project, announced in April that it had submitted 200,000 signatures to qualify the initiative. The office of Utah Lt. Gov.  Spencer J. Cox has since unofficially verified more than 155,000 signatures. If he certifies that at least 113,143 are properly registered Utah voters, the measure goes to the ballot.

'People are sending canvassers out to lie. That’s very concerning to us.'
Desiree Hennessy, director of community lobbying, TRUCE

But now Utah cannabis advocates charge that door-to-door canvassers are engaging in a disinformation campaign to convince voters to sign paperwork authorizing removal of their signatures from initiative petitions in hopes of keeping the measure from qualifying. Tensions continue to mount in Utah’s cannabis politics clash.

The alleged tactics of anti-initiative canvassers, including in the shaky video now being widely shared by initiative supporters, have stoked a public relations backlash against the Utah Medical Association. The group is leading opposition to the initiative, along with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, representing the state’s politically potent Mormon voters.

Utah Medical Group Behind It?

The Medical Association recently unveiled an anti-initiative campaign – Drug Safe Utah – to convince voters to withdraw their support. But now that marijuana isn’t cannabis video is being widely lampooned by initiative backers to discredit opponents and their tactics to reverse voter support for the measure.

In the nearly 12-minute clip, the voter seems stunned by what the canvasser has to say on her door step. The canvasser claims to be acting on behalf of the Medical Association as well as the local county clerk’s office. She also says she is a medical student from North Carolina who is volunteering to defeat the initiative.

The canvasser says the petitions were illegally gathered. Then she goes on to say that the state furtively rewrote the initiative – so that it doesn’t even say what voters think it does. She alternatively argues that it would imprison cancer patients for smoking cannabis or that the measure isn’t even needed for personal medical marijuana use.


The Leafly Starter Pack: A Comprehensive Guide to Medical Cannabis

Then there is the canvasser’s opening and closing flourishes – suggesting that voters are being hoodwinked because, somehow, marijuana isn’t cannabis:

“We’re being told that the petition I have that shows that you signed…is a marijuana bill,” she wraps up. “But there is no such thing on the ballot for a marijuana bill – there is a difference between marijuana and cannabis.

“…We’re just doing our job and just making sure you understand that.”

In the video, the voter looks to break off the conversation and close the door.

“I don’t understand anything about it anymore, but I appreciate your time,” she tells the canvasser. She refuses to sign the form to remove her signature from the initiative petition.

The video was widely shared on social media by a Utah cannabis advocacy group, TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education.)


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‘We’re Very Concerned’

“We’re really concerned,” Desiree Hennessy, TRUCE’s director of community lobbying told Leafly. “We’ve got (nearly) 160,000 verified signatures for this initiative and, now, people are sending canvassers out to lie. That’s very concerning to us.”

Hennessy, who spoke to the woman who made the video, said her group has talked to several voters who got unusual pitches from paid canvassers seeking to get them to drop their support. She said the anti-initiative canvassers wore “Drug Safe Utah” buttons for the Utah Medical Association campaign.

The Association’s vice president of communications, Mark Fotheringham, told Leafly that the canvasser in the video – whoever she was – wasn’t operating off of any script authorized by Utah Medical Association or Drug Safe Utah.

“This video is circulating of a woman whose face is never revealed,” Fotheringham said. “She doesn’t represent the Medical Association or anything associated with the UMA. Her rambling statements have nothing to do with the talking points Drug Safe Utah supplied to legitimate people.

“We have gone through this many times, to try to figure out who this is, to ask her to stop disrupting our campaign.”


Qualifying conditions for medical marijuana by state

‘Dear Neighbor’ Letters

As part of its signature removal campaign, Drug Safe Utah is also sending out “Dear Neighbor” letters targeting voters who signed initiative petitions. One letter, obtained by Leafly, warns residents of Cache County, Utah, including the city of Logan, that many people who signed the petitions were misled into doing so.

'Your name is on a list' of voters who signed a petition to put the measure on the ballot, neighbors were told.

“We are a group of your neighbors and we are writing today because your name is on the lieutenant governor’s list of registered voters who signed the petition to legalize marijuana under the ‘Utah Medical Cannabis Act’ initiative,” the missive reads. It goes onto say: “The marijuana initiative is a 28-page legal document pushed by a national marijuana industry group,” declaring: “Most people signed the initiative based on whatever petitions workers told them in a brief conversation. In fact, some people whose names appear on the petition don’t remember signing it at all.”

In kind, cannabis legalization advocates are blasting out photos on social media of talking points allegedly given to some anti-initiative canvassers.

In one such photo, a script for someone claiming to be with the Utah Medical Association, suggests urging young voters to remove their names from petitions because – if the initiative passes – “you can have weed, but it still would be completely illegal to smoke it.”

The script’s pitch to older voters suggested that “just about anyone would be able to get a (medical cannabis) card and not only grow their own plants but store a much as they want in their house. Drug trafficking would skyrocket.”

Drug Safe Utah: Not Us

Both the Medical Association and Drug Safe Utah disavowed the script, saying none of the talking points were authorized.

Fotheringham said the UMA’s central opposition to the initiative focus on its belief that the medicinal measure is a cover for legalizing recreational cannabis use in Utah. He says the measure lacks clear rules for doctors recommending cannabis and, thus, is a political Trojan Horse to pave the way for eventual legal adult use, such as in neighboring Nevada and Colorado.

“We’re concerned about a lot of things,” Fotheringham. “This initiative grants total immunity to doctors and others who recommend marijuana. We just think this is an open invitation to unauthorized practices.”

The Medical Association opposition to the initiative is buttressed by the Mormon church, which declared: “The proposed Utah marijuana initiative would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities.”

High or Not, a Good Idea

Perhaps the most pointed – and colorful – opposition has come from the Next Generation Freedom Fund, a conservative Utah policy group. “The truth is the Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative is a ruse being perpetrated by Utah libertarians and radicalized potheads across the country,” wrote Next Generation president Paul Mero in a op-ed that spared few pot puns in blasting the measure.

Opponents paint the medical marijuana initiative as 'a ruse being perpetrated by Utah libertarians and radicalized potheads.'

“The D.C. lobbyists at the Marijuana Policy Project, old hippies at NORML and our own liberty-loving kooks…feign a non-existent morality – some pot-induced moral code that only consuming marijuana will appease,” Mero went on. “Let me be as blunt as I can: You must be high to think this initiative is a good idea.”

Among those thinking the initiative is a good idea is Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gil. He recently broke ranks with other law enforcement officials in offering his endorsement. “This is not about recreational marijuana, that is not what I support,” he said. “But I will advocate for not criminalizing the conduct of parents, patients and family members for an act of compassion.”

Hennessy of TRUCE said the initiative, especially including its ban on selling joints, was written to appeal to cautious voters in a state new to cannabis politics.

“We do understand we are a very conservative state. We knew we were going to have opposition,” she said. “We tried to create a conservative ballot initiative, with no recreational pathway. It’s sad that people want to try to burn us down.”

With the campaign to void petition signatures continuing, she added, “On one hand, we’re shocked every day with what they come up with. On the other hand, we knew we would have to buckle our seat belts.”

Peter Hecht's Bio Image

Peter Hecht

Peter Hecht, former political writer and Los Angeles bureau chief for the Sacramento Bee, has been reporting on cannabis since 2009. His coverage has been honored for explanatory reporting in the "Best of the West" journalism awards and earned an Excellence in Journalism prize from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hecht is the author of the book “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”

View Peter Hecht's articles

  • Legalize420

    I am glad I am not in Utah, but have seen things like this following other states and my own. I like how the woman making the video was smart enough not to show the face of the canvasser to not only keep the video “legal” but also shows the truth of what the people behind it don’t want shown. Their ignorance!
    It’s also not surprising that the people paying these people would deny any connection with ANYTHING that supporters get ahold of and make “public”. Good for everyone that has done so. Also, the people behind it are going to claim ignorance over anything made public as they know they have no case and how wrong what they are doing is. “Officially” they want to sound as legit as possible, but after that, anything goes as it we’re.

    I hope people keep outing tactics and misinformation spread by the group and people working for it. Also, it’s pretty obvious that woman was working for them as she was equipped with a legit clipboard planned points to bring up, and obviously a list of addresses to hit. I just love how blatantly lies get thrown around. Ofcorse any points they want to make are going to be based on lies or misinformation. They just deny deny deny to not out themselves publically and admit they are a farce. I am not from Utah or close to it, but I hate it when organizations will lie, cheat, and steal so to speak to try to get their way, even when they know they lost.

    Best of luck to Utah, may sick people soon be able to find relief from this amazing plant.

    • Aaron Sellers

      Thanks. We need all the luck we can get with tactics like these being played by the UMA and other well-moneyed interests that have a vested interest in keeping MM illegal here. Real people are enduring untold suffering and are being kept from a solution that would ease their suffering because of these people.

      • Legalize420

        Agreed. It’s no good. It’s kinda funny how they call us out on anything they want yet when it, ones down to it they people representing a “correct and polite society” yet they use extremely low and underhanded tactics themselves.
        My state is finally starting rec but I am a patient and the healing qualities of this plant are enormous. IMO hemp derived CBD should be considered a natural dietary supplement as it’s nothing but good and healthy and healing for your body.

        The “right to try” law IMO is laughable as the only people to benefit are sadly those on the cusp of death. You should not need in any way to be hanging on by a thread to be able to use mmj. It helps so much. I really hope you guys presservere and vote in more reasonable mmj policy. In MA we had the church and lawmakers against us also but we beat them. You guys can too. Never give up, never surrender! ✊✌

  • rodb

    Paul Mero is a gem. Someone should do a full length video interview of him to save for posterity.

    Kudos to Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gil. I could just imagine him struggling to come up with reasoning that would be the most palatable.

    • Aaron Sellers

      He is the kook. He hates liberty (and libertarians).

  • Pen Dragon

    “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, representing the state’s politically potent Mormon voters” Why? Are they not allowed to think for themselves? What about separation of church and state?

    • Aaron Sellers

      I’m a member and I strongly support this initiative. A high percentage of the state’s active members support this initiative (~40% last I heard).

  • 360dunk

    Dumb governor (Gary Herbert) must hate personal freedom of choice. Maybe this inbred sack of horse manure prefers his constituents to walk around zombie-fied under the influence of Vicodin and Oxycontin. Hey dumb-@ss, open your eyes and look at your neighboring states…..Nevada and Colorado have provided millions to their school districts, thanks to dispensary taxes. Even my four Mormon wives think Utah needs to evolve.

    • Good point. Education is the enemy of the control freaks.

      • Legalize420

        Exactly! This is sad but they want the public as ignorant of facts and truth as possible. The more ignorant the people, the easier it is to spread lies and ultimately control them in some way. I really hope this passes for everyone who can benefit from mmj in Utah.

  • Great article. Utah will be liberated. Lies are the weapon of those in the wrong.

    • 360dunk

      Yes, and when a bag of douche like Paul Mero runs his fool mouth and starts questioning the morals of marijuana users, you know he’s just regurgitating nonsense. The ass-clown should worry about his own sorry life, not other people’s.

  • lovingc

    The LDS elders are using fear and misinformation to try and stop the legalization of medical cannabis. But 60% of the country has managed it with little to no problems at all.? what is the real issue?

  • “Officer, what I have here is cannabis, not marijuana.”