Medical marijuana on the ballot could change political power in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY -- Medical marijuana appearing on the November ballot could have an impact on the Utah State Legislature, flipping some districts from Republican to Democrat.

In other states, marijuana initiatives have historically driven younger, often more liberal voters to the polls. It may not be enough to turn red state Utah blue, but it could certainly impact some districts. This year, voters will not only have a presidential election to contend with, but numerous legislative seats are on the ballot.

"I think medical cannabis as a ballot initiative changes political dynamics for the election," said Josh Daniels, a policy analyst for the Libertas Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank that supports medical marijuana. "There's going to be a lot of different populations, maybe people that typically don't vote who are going to be very interested in this particular issue."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said marijuana on the ballot could make for an interesting election, but he did not believe the legislature would lose its Republican super-majority.

"It's not going to affect districts in Utah County or Davis County or most parts of the state. It would be focused in Salt Lake County," he told FOX 13.

But Democrats on Utah's Capitol Hill said they have already seen some of their Republican counterparts have a little heartburn over the idea of medical marijuana on the November ballot. House Minority Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she believed the ballot initiative would help her party.

"We know that when more voters get out, it always benefits the Democrats," she said.

Former University of Utah and Weber State Football Coach Ron McBride speaks at a news conference in support of Senate Bill 73. (Photo via Ben Winslow)

Former University of Utah and Weber State Football Coach Ron McBride speaks at a news conference in support of Senate Bill 73. (Photo via Ben Winslow)

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Governor Gary Herbert said he did not believe that medical marijuana alone could change the political makeup of the state. He also expressed hope that the issue could be handled legislatively, but added that he respected the voter initiative process.

"I think there's energy out there on this medical marijuana issue and I think the discussion is timely," he said.

The Senate announced it would hold debate Friday on both medical marijuana bills -- Senate Bill 89 (a marijuana extract bill) sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Senate Bill 73 (a whole plant medical marijuana bill), sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen.

Madsen's bill has support from patients and medical marijuana advocates, but faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Backers of SB73 have said they believe it would not pass, which is why they are pursuing a ballot initiative.

On Wednesday, Madsen called a news conference where he announced support from former University of Utah and Weber State football coach Ron McBride. The coach, who has a grandson and a niece who have benefited from cannabis oil treatments, said he supported SB73.

To me this is a no-brainier," McBride said. "This shouldn't be a political issue, this should be something that's needed. It's needed for the people in our state and to me it's just stupidity if you don't pass this bill.

Madsen told FOX 13 he was anticipating a close vote -- and said if it failed, he would support a ballot initiative.

"The future's uncertain. We're going to try as hard as we can at every pass. But I understand the position of the patients here," he said.