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Thursday, July 20, 2017

This State Isn’t Waiting on the Government to End Prohibition

Utah is one of the most conservative-leaning states in the country, yet its policymakers have consistently adhered to the limited government philosophy. Aside from a small scale legislative victory in 2014, the issue of medical marijuana has been contested by state representatives at almost every corner.


While many states and municipalities wait for their elected representatives to free them from the burdens of drug prohibition, medical marijuana advocates in Utah are taking a different route and placing the decision in the hands of the people.

“Charlee’s Law” made it legal for Utah patients to possess and use small doses of THC cannabidiol.

The Libertas Institute has made all the right enemies within the Utah legislature since its founding in 2012. Persistently fighting back against any legislative proposal incompatible with liberty and the free market, the Libertas team has managed to make tremendous strides in the state.

Charlee’s Law

Incredibly, Libertas has, in 2017, abolished all fees associated with home-based business licensing and eliminated licensing requirements for entrepreneurial minors. But despite its many legislative successes, working to decriminalize medical marijuana has been an uphill battle. Now, the Utah think tank is taking the issue of medical marijuana to the ballot in 2018, in partnership with TRUCE, a patient advocacy group and the Marijuana Policy Project, which is the country’s leading voice in marijuana policy reform.

Utah is one of the most conservative-leaning states in the country, yet its policymakers have consistently adhered to the limited government philosophy. Aside from a small scale legislative victory in 2014, the issue of medical marijuana has been contested by state representatives at almost every corner.

Named for six-year-old Charlee Nelson, the 2014 “Charlee’s Law” made it legal for Utah patients to possess and use small doses of THC cannabidiol if recommended by a doctor. However, only patients with intractable epilepsy were permitted to use the oil, still excluding many ailing patients from receiving the care they need. Passed only a few days before Charlee’s death, this law was also the first legislative victory the state had seen on this issue. While this was a major stepping stone toward the acceptance of marijuana as a medicine, the law still made criminals of those using the oil, since they were still not allowed to legally obtain it within the state.

In most instances, those wanting to purchase the oil were forced to travel to the neighboring state of Colorado where both medicinal and recreational use are permitted. However, since the federal drug war is still very much alive and well, bringing legal cannabis from Colorado into Utah constitutes interstate commerce. As the commerce clause is under federal jurisdiction, those transporting cannabis products across state lines run the risk of facing federal drug trafficking charges. Sure, once they get the product into the state they are fine so long as they have complied with the state law, but it is still a risky endeavor.

A truly free market allows individuals to purchase whatever they wanted from whoever they want.

Yet even with these major obstacles in place, medical cannabis advocates were encouraged by the passing of Charlee’s Law. But in the years that followed, the state found itself in a legislative standstill.

Sponsoring legislation in both 2015 and 2016, Utah Senator Mark Madsen diligently worked towards the passing of the Medical Cannabis Act, which would have allowed those suffering from nine specified conditions, including AIDS, PTSD, cancer and epilepsy, to legally obtain doctor-recommended cannabis within the state. Unfortunately, the respective bills were not able to garner the support they needed in order to pass and progress on the issue has since stalled.

Frustrated and quite frankly appalled with the legislature’s dismissal of such a serious matter, Senator Madsen did not seek reelection in 2017. With one of Utah’s loudest voices of reason no longer serving in the legislature, advocates needed a new plan if they were going to pave the way for medical freedom within the state.  

A Different Approach

A truly free market would allow individuals to purchase whatever they wanted from whoever they want, especially when it comes to their health and well being. And this is exactly why the Libertas Institute is working so hard for Utah patients.

Libertas President, Connor Boyack commented on the matter saying:

“Arbitrary prohibitions on what people can ingest into their own bodies have created a massive amount of injustice by subjecting sick patients to the crushing weight of the criminal justice system. Freeing up the market for medical cannabis restores compassionate common sense by allowing adults to manage their health care and keeping law enforcement entirely out of the equation.”

After being routinely shut down during legislative sessions, Libertas and its allies decided to try a different approach. The legislature may pretend to represent its residents’ interests, but internal polling has actually shown that medical marijuana is viewed quite favorably by a majority of Utah residents. In 2016, polling conducted within the state found that 61 percent of the residents were in favor of legalizing medicinal marijuana.

Libertas Institute wants to bring the issue of medical marijuana directly to the ballot.

Elected representatives are, of course, supposed to reflect the will of their constituents, but this is not often the case, as is seen in the state of Utah. In fact, this belief that the government knows better than the people has been reinforced by older residents of the state. The senior editorial writer for the state’s Deseret News even went so far as to pen an op-ed entitled, “Voters Aren’t Qualified to Make Marijuana Decisions.”

But in spite of those who think patients should be denied certain medical treatments because “government must know best,” the data provided by recent polling armed medicinal marijuana advocates with the tools they need to bring about substantial reform.

Rather than continuing to wait on a legislature hellbent on maintaining an outdated system of prohibition, the Libertas Institute, Marijuana Policy Project, and TRUCE are working towards bypassing the legislature and bringing the issue of medical marijuana directly to the ballot where the people of Utah will be in control of medical marijuana’s fate.

A similar tactic was used in Washington, DC a few years ago when almost 65 percent of its residents voted for Ballot Initiative 71, effectively decriminalizing the limited possession and cultivation of marijuana. DC is heavily influenced by the United States Congress given its lack of statehood, so Initiative 71 met a unique set of obstacles in that respect. But by putting the issue on the ballot, the residents of Washington, DC refused to let any legislative body control the will of the individual citizens.

Unfortunately, getting an initiative placed on the ballot is not as simple as it may sound. In order for the initiative to qualify for the 2018 ballot, Libertas and its partnering organizations will have to collect over 113,000 Utah voter signatures. However, once the signatures are gathered, the residents of Utah will be able to make a strong statement about personal responsibility and individual liberty.

No legislative body has the authority to tell another individual what they can and cannot put into their bodies, especially when this decision involves those suffering from chronic pain and terminal conditions. True liberty can only be obtained when individuals are given the right to self-determination. And as Utah is demonstrating, once this right is routinely denied by the state, the only way to reclaim it is to bypass legislating bodies altogether.


  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.