Both sides of the newly certified medical marijuana campaign are still taking shape, yet there’s one group that’s largely taken a back-seat role in the increasingly nasty debate marred with allegations of sleazy politics and lies.
The various levels of law enforcement in Utah have been quiet during the lead-up to the initiative collecting enough voter signatures to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot. Instead, the Utah Medical Association, a wealthy entrepreneur, the LDS Church and prominent Republican politicians have led the fight against the measure.
But police agencies seem to be lining up with the opposition as Utah prepares for what will be a hard-fought campaign.
Here’s the approach taken by sheriffs, police and federal agents in the background — and foreground — of the battle.
On the cover of its most recent newsletter, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association included a list of what it said was verifiable information on marijuana not shared by traditional media outlets.
The letter included information, most without citation, from Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is legal for all adults over 21. Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson, who wrote the letter, pointed out there are more marijuana dispensaries in Colorado than Starbucks and McDonald’s.
He pointed out the Colorado Springs district attorney attributed eight homicides in 2016 to marijuana.
Signing off his letter, Thompson included a foreboding note.
“Medical marijuana’s impact will touch all aspects of life in Utah including health and safety,” Thompson wrote. “Think about how that could affect our youth, schools, economy, and workforce. Do you want these negative influences in our community?”
The association, a semigovernmental nonprofit, will avoid taking a formal position, said executive director Aaron Kennard, a former Salt Lake County sheriff.
“Needless to say, the sheriffs are adamantly opposed to the initiative [because] they’re fearful of where it will lead,” Kennard said in an interview with The Tribune. “Legalizing marijuana is not anything that the sheriffs want to see happen.”
Kennard later emailed to say the sheriffs could speak for themselves on the matter. Only one responded to a request for comment: Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera supports the initiative.
“I’ve had personal friends who have had cancer and died,” Rivera said. “I really feel medical marijuana could have helped with their pain. I support that.”
The campaign proposing the initiative said it has several members of active law enforcement on its side. Rivera and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill are among them.
While the Legislature was in session this year, the organization that represents Utah’s police chiefs came out against a bill that would eventually pass and legalize marijuana for terminally ill patients.
They haven’t yet taken a position on the far more sweeping initiative, which would expand the list of patients eligible for a medical marijuana card to those suffering a range of ailments, from autism to Crohn’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as chronic pain.
Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, president of the police chiefs’ group, said the organization was still putting together its position paper on the initiative. Given its opposition to the limited bill passed by the Legislature, the association is likely to come out against the ballot measure once it meets and votes.
Carl Wimmer, a detective and school resource officer who is one of the five people who sponsored the marijuana initiative, thinks if the chiefs take a position against the initiative, it would be out of line with what most patrol officers believe.
“Frankly, I think that the everyday officer on the street, a majority, if not an overwhelming majority of them support the legalization of medical cannabis,” said Wimmer, a former state lawmaker and onetime congressional candidate.
The day after the state elections office said the initiative collected enough signatures to reach the ballot, various police agencies gathered at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City for a news conference where they said Utah highways are becoming busier routes for marijuana traffickers.
Highway troopers have begun finding larger quantities of marijuana in vehicles in recent years, they said. They said the plants are coming from Western states where cannabis is legal — Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California — and going to states with large black-market demand.
U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said the timing was coincidental, that there wasn’t “any connection between” the initiative and his news conference. Rules prevent Huber from weighing in on political campaigns, he said in a subsequent interview.
Rather, the event was intended to showcase what police are seeing, he said. It also highlights Huber’s personal approach to enforcing federal law prohibiting marijuana. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era directive making pot a low priority for prosecutors and gave U.S. attorneys wider discretion on whether to focus more on marijuana-related crimes.
“I don’t want that in Utah. And I want to send a message to criminals, ‘Don’t go there. Keep it out,’” Huber said. “That’s a priority for me.”
Still, he added, marijuana takes up only a small portion of the office’s attention.
Brian Besser, who oversees U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration activity in Utah, also spoke at the news conference. When opponents of the marijuana initiative formed a campaign — the Drug Safe Utah political issues committee or PIC — they listed a task force that Besser oversees as an “affiliated” organization.
Besser and the opposition campaign said the agency’s involvement was somewhat informal. It gives information to the campaign that’s waged an all-out battle to stop voters from having a say on the question. The campaign has also filed a federal lawsuit against the state attempting to keep the measure off the ballot.
“There is a misnomer out there that DEA is diametrically opposed to medical marijuana. That is completely fallacious,” Besser told The Tribune on Thursday.
For one thing, Besser said, the DEA has been granting more licenses to research marijuana than before.
“I am all in favor of getting legitimate, scientifically based proven research done and FDA-approved medicine into the hands of people who are sick,” he said. “A guy growing pot plants in his backyard, rolling them up and smoking them is not medicine.”
Some, but not all, federal employees are prohibited from working on nonpartisan ballot measures, according to Larry Noble, general counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
“However, government employees still can’t use government resources and they should not state or imply that they are representing the government’s position on the issue,” Noble added.
But the timing of the DEA’s involvement bothers Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel for the Alliance for a Better Utah.
“Mostly, our concerns are that it’s even more significant when a government agency itself, especially the DEA, gets involved in trying to keep citizens from expressing their voice on the ballot initiative,” Thomas said. “From keeping them from even getting on the initiative itself rather than [letting voters make] a choice.”