SALT LAKE CITY — Now that this week’s unique special legislative session is over (anytime lawmakers meet right after an election to change a successful initiative, that is unique), it’s time to explore a couple of persistent myths.
The first, repeated on social media and comment boards this week, is that Utah lawmakers never would have passed a bill on their own allowing medical marijuana without the threat of Proposition 2. In fact, they were moving slowly in this direction in recent years. But they were moving far too slowly for many people’s tastes.
That’s not necessarily a weakness when the subject is a substance that remains illegal under federal law. Even the compromise law is at the mercy of the Justice Department, which could decide at any time to stop looking the other way as states gradually legalize uses of what the feds still consider a Schedule I controlled substance.
The second, more persistent myth is that altering Proposition 2, which lawmakers did overwhelmingly on Monday, rejects the “will of the people,” which passed the proposition with 53 percent of the vote.
That “will” is an elusive aggregation of popular opinion, which is why we have a representative form of government and an initiative process with a high bar for getting citizen-proposed laws on the ballot.
Former President Teddy Roosevelt addressed this delicate balance in a speech 106 years ago.
“No man would say that it was best to conduct all legislation by direct vote of the people — it would mean the loss of deliberation, of patient consideration,” he said, according to a transcript on teachingamericanhistory.org. “But on the other hand, no one whose mental arteries have not long since hardened can doubt that the proposed changes are needed when the legislatures refuse to carry out the will of the people.”
Most Utahns want medical marijuana to be legal. You would need hardened mental arteries not to acknowledge this. The lieutenant governor reported that Proposition 2 received more votes than anything else on ballots last month, meaning some people cast ballots for no other reason than to express themselves on the matter.
So in that sense, it’s easy to discern a “will.” But was that “will” best expressed by the language of Proposition 2? That’s hard to tell, because the first part of Roosevelt’s quote, the need for “deliberation” and “patient consideration,” was lacking.
The public wasn’t present at the drafting of Proposition 2. All the people had was the chance to vote it up or down. It’s also safe to say many people who voted on the proposition hadn’t read it and didn’t fully understand it — it was 27 pages long.
For what, then, were people voting? The answer likely is as varied and different as the voters themselves. For some, it may have been recreational marijuana and the initiative as a first step, or maybe even just a chance to stick it to what they perceived as the state’s dominant culture.
For others, it may have been as simple as a compassionate desire to alleviate suffering.
You could argue that the Legislature didn’t involve the public in rewriting the law on Monday any more than the initiative’s authors did initially. But what lawmakers did would have been far more serious had the campaign organizers themselves not agreed to the compromise.
And the 3 ½ hour combined debate by the people’s elected representatives in the House and Senate should count for something. At the least, it provides a public record people can use when making future election decisions.
I exchanged emails recently with a reader who was furious that lawmakers would alter the “will of the people,” as he saw it. But as any student of a high school civics class could tell you, no part of lawmaking in the United States ever is permanent.
The legislative branch can change any law it previously passed. The executive branch can veto laws. The judicial branch may rule them unconstitutional. Why should laws passed through citizen initiative be considered inviolate?33 comments on this story
In the United States, this is a unique situation. Utah is one of only 21 states that allow its citizens to pass laws. It is one of a handful that places no time limit on how long the Legislature must wait to change one of those laws.
Lawmaking is, by any measure, a messy process, and this one may become even messier if groups challenge the Legislature’s actions with a lawsuit.
But that messiness is intentional. It’s the best way to express the many and varied wills of the people, and to keep up as the balance of those wills changes.