Utah Supreme Court hears medical cannabis case

Justices question state attorneys

The Utah Supreme Court has not yet answered the question of whether it is the proper legal venue to hear arguments regarding the Utah Legislature amending the medical marijuana initiative voters approved in November’s election.

Several media sources, including the Salt Lake Tribune and The Associated Press reported justices, in hearing arguments lodged by a citizens’ group called “The People’s Right,” which seeks to undo lawmakers’ efforts of amending the initiative in a controversial compromise with medical cannabis backers, asked pointed questions to attorneys representing the state.

The People’s Right could not find a Utah-licensed attorney to take up their case, but about 50 of them represented themselves on March 26. “I don’t need an attorney to screw up the case for me,” quipped lead plaintiff Steven Maxfield, according to a report in the Tribune.

While justices questioned whether the case should first go through the lower courts before they heard arguments – which is the traditional track – a couple of them hinted they might ultimately side with the plaintiffs who claim the legislature unlawfully amended the voter-approved initiative regarding medical marijuana, and also acted unlawfully when they passed legislation that diminishes the people’s power to put initiatives on the ballot in the future.

Medical marijuana was not the only voter-approved initiative lawmakers changed. Medicaid expansion also was altered, leading critics to call them “arrogant” for overriding the will of voters, noted the Tribune.

“If the legislature can effectively change anything that the people pass, has that nullified that right?” asked Justice Paige Peterson. “Is it [the right to file an initiative] essentially an empty power?”

The People’s Right wants the court to invalidate the compromise and reinstate the original intent of the medical marijuana initiative, which was referred to as Proposition 2 on the ballot. The group argues the equal power between the people and the legislature has become unbalanced on the side of lawmakers.

Peterson and Justice Constandinos Himonas asked several hard questions to state attorneys seeking clarification on a number of issues – including if there were any limits to lawmakers’ powers to alter voter initiatives.

Himonas specifically asked why they moved so rapidly to amend the bill. The legislature met in special session in December. Usually, only extraordinary events would lead the legislature to do so. Himonas wanted to know what portions of the initiative met that criterion.

Deputy Solicitor General Stanford Purser said the fact Utah has never had a medical marijuana bill was extraordinary on its own, said the Tribune.

In a separate lawsuit filed by former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson on behalf of medical marijuana advocates, plaintiffs made the same allegations as The People’s Right, and also alleged the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has wrongfully interjected itself into the matter.

The Supreme Court did not make an immediate decision.