By the end of next year, Utah voters might be asked whether to legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Then again, everyone involved in the budding marijuana industry in the 29 states that have legalized a form of it might be in jail by then, hoping family members will hide a file or two in a batch of brownies during their next visit.
That could, of course, affect how you might vote on such a referendum. It’s also indicative of how uncertain lawmakers in every state are right now about this issue, which never has been officially
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sanctioned by the federal government.
President Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, would, if confirmed, come into office with enormous power. Because the federal government still officially classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, along with drugs such as cocaine and heroin, he could, with a stroke of his pen, order the arrests of growers, retailers and their customers nationwide. He could nullify laws in 29 states.
The Obama administration turned a deliberate blind eye toward what the states were doing on this subject, but it didn’t change the drug’s classification. A blind eye doesn’t constitute a law or regulation, and it’s good only until the eye leaves office.
And don’t think Sessions isn’t inclined to change things. He has a long history of tough public statements against the drug. Some of these stretch back to the 1980s. Most recently he said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Politico.com quoted him in a floor speech last year saying, “You can’t have the president of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink … It is different … It is already causing a disturbance in the states that have made it legal.”
No one knows for sure whether Trump agrees with his nominee on this point. As a candidate, he indicated a dislike for recreational use of the plant but suggested he might support it for medicinal reasons. The big question, however, is whether he will grant cabinet members the latitude to go their own way on key issues.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, which likely would help put the matter on ballots in Utah next year, told reporters last week he thinks the administration would not take such a drastic step because it would be bad PR. But public relations doesn’t seem to be a big concern for this president.
Utah lawmakers have indicated they no longer are interested in legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes — at least not this year. Instead, a bill has been introduced that would allow for credible, double-blind studies of the plant’s effects on people who are ill.
It always made more sense to do it this way — conduct research before sanctioning a cognitive-altering plant as medicine. Most states have allowed the drug based only on the word of suffering patients who attest to its benefits. It may be hard not to have sympathy for them, but their anecdotes do not substitute for scientific research.
Still, it has been interesting to watch the idea of medicinal marijuana gain a foothold at the Utah Legislature. Former Sen. Mark Madsen was a major driver for this, defying his conservative Republican image with personal stories of his own use of the drug.
Now, the Senate’s proponents of research seem to be Republicans Brian Shiozawa and Evan Vickers. A pharmacist, Vickers was adamantly opposed to marijuana use until Madsen’s bills were considered. “He prompted me to start digging deeper into the matter,” Vickers told me.
He now believes there is some medical value to the plant, but he knows it’s not time to go there, yet. He wants to sponsor a bill this session dealing with the framework of how the state might eventually administer such a medical program, determining who would grow it and how it would be dispensed.
Until inauguration day, a wave of pro-marijuana sentiment seemed to be sweeping the land. That always seemed fraught with danger — an uncritical promotion of a drug without thought to consequences or costs.
Sessions may try to stop that wave. Regardless, Utahns would be wise to proceed cautiously.