Strange Tactics Emerge in Utah’s Medical Marijuana Legalization Fight

Published on May 10, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
The Utah State Capitol Building and Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake City.

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.'

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.'

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.

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.

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“…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.)

‘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.”

‘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.”

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Peter Hecht
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.”
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