A new lawsuit is seeking to block legislation approved by lawmakers this week which rewrote a voter-approved ballot measure expanding access to medical marijuana.
The suit was filed by attorney Rocky Anderson on behalf of patient groups TRUCE and the Epilepsy Association of Utah late Wednesday night in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City. It names Gov. Gary Herbert and Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, as defendants.
It lawsuit claims Herbert signed the bill “in direct contravention of the expressed will of the People” and “at the behest” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The legal challenge centers around the bill lawmakers passed in a special session Monday and Herbert later signed into law. The law, dubbed the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, replaces portions of Proposition 2, a ballot initiative approved by 52.75 percent of voters last month.
Anderson wrote in the complaint that the new law “materially defeats ... numerous core purposes of Proposition 2" and alleges that lawmakers violated Utah citizens' equal lawmaking power in passing a substantially different version of the law.
“We are addressing the right guaranteed by the Utah Constitution for the people to pass an initiative,” Anderson said in an interview Thursday. “This is a gross abuse of the power by the Legislature to try to undo what the people voted for.”
He argues in the complaint that the newly-passed Utah Medical Cannabis Act “deprives, reduces, and unreasonably burdens access to medical cannabis; drastically reduces the authorization for private facilities to sell medical cannabis; and completely eliminates the opportunity for any patients to grow cannabis for their personal medicinal use.”
The suit seeks an injunction to keep the state from implementing the new law. It also raises concerns about negotiating tactics employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its lobbyist Marty Stephens. It alleges the LDS Church unconstitutionally interfered in state functions and cites a “palpable disregard … for the democratic process” by the LDS Church and Stephens, a former Republican Speaker of the Utah House.
Plaintiffs Christine Stenquist and Doug Rice, whose patient advocacy groups Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) and the Epilepsy Association of Utah (EAU) are also named in the suit, say the new law will significantly reduce access to medical cannabis for some patients.
“They just wrote me out of the bill,” said Stenquist, who uses unprocessed cannabis flower in a vaporizer, along with cannabis wax and resin, to treat her rare nerve condition and the chronic pain that accompanies it.
Paul Cassell, a former federal judge and distinguished professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, called the lawsuit “almost a nonstarter.”
Cassell said even though Monday’s special session may have been spurred by Proposition 2’s passage, laws enacted as ballot initiatives aren’t “immune from later legislative action.”
The former judge said churches are entitled to political opinions and activity “just the way any other individual or organization is entitled to be involved.”
“So it’s hard to see how this lawsuit is going to have much chance of success,” Cassell said.
Stenquist acknowledged the lawsuit’s success is unlikely, but said she has faced that challenge before.
“It may be a longshot – all of this – but we wouldn’t be here winning this debate on medical cannabis if I didn’t believe in longshots,” she said.