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Utah governor says he'll use 'bully pulpit' to get lawmakers to act on medical marijuana

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he wants the Legislature to take action on medical marijuana regardless of what happens in November with the proposition on the ballot.

"I think I'm in a position to get this done," Herbert told reporters after the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7, promising to use his office's "bully pulpit" to come up with a compromise lawmakers will pass.

During the program, the governor again said he will vote against Proposition 2, a citizens' initiative to legalize medical marijuana, noting "most rational people understand there are some problems with the initiative that need to be fixed."

Worker Emma Caron, of Hopedale, Mass., weighs and prepares medicinal cannabis cigarettes Thursday, July 12, 2018, at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

Worker Emma Caron, of Hopedale, Mass., weighs and prepares medicinal cannabis cigarettes Thursday, July 12, 2018, at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.

He said lawmakers should be able to get behind a "common-sense position" on using marijuana to relieve pain and suffering without promoting recreational use, including having county health departments serving as dispensaries.

Legislative action will be needed whether or not voters approve Proposition 2, Herbert said.

Proposition 2 is opposed by a coalition of religious, civic, business and law enforcement officials that includes the Utah Medical Association, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The church sent an email to members last week from Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Utah Area of the church, urging them to vote no.

Newly transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in soilless media in pots, Thursday, July 12, 2018, at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility, in Milford, Mass.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

Newly transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in soilless media in pots, Thursday, July 12, 2018, at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility, in Milford, Mass.

The email also asked them to join "in a call to state elected officials to promptly work with medical experts, patients and community leaders to find a solution that will work for all Utahns, without the harmful effects that will come to pass if Proposition 2 becomes law."

DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition political issues committee that's backing Proposition 2, said there's no need for any changes.

"While we appreciate the governor's good-faith effort to move cannabis access along, we feel it's best left with the voters," Schanz said. "I think a fine balance was struck between regulation and patient access."

He said there would be "some grave legal challenges" with distributing cannabis through a government entity like a county health department. Proposition 2 calls for state-licensed, privately run dispensaries.

State lawmakers are likely to take on the issue in the 2019 Legislature, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said, especially if voters approve Proposition 2.

"You'll see a lot of bills to address the unintended consequences," Wilson said. If the measure fails in November, he said lawmakers will continue "the significant progress" they've made on widening the permitted uses of cannabis.

Attempts to legalize medical marijuana have been rejected by lawmakers in the past but last session, they did agree to allow the terminally ill to use some cannabis products.

"There are people who need help. We have empathy for them," Wilson said, describing himself as "optimistic, very optimistic, that we can find a good solution. And we welcome the governor's help, as always."

Herbert expressed frustration that Congress "sat on their hindquarters" for years rather than taking action to reclassify medical marijuana so it could be treated as a medicine, prescribed by doctors and distributed by pharmacists.

"Let's start now," the governor said, adding he will be comfortable with Utah moving forward on medical marijuana even if Washington ends up doing nothing. "I will, absolutely."

While Herbert said he'd prefer a "dual-track" approach with Congress, states needs "to play the cards" they've been dealt on the issue. "One way or another, we're going to get a law on the books that makes sense."

Also Thursday, the governor weighed in on whether the new Utah Inland Port Authority Board should open its subcommittee meetings to the public. Wednesday, the board voted to keep the meetings closed.

"They ought to err on the side of more openness and transparency," Herbert said, pointing out the board is following the law that allows meetings that don't involve a quorum to be closed.