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Medical marijuana has 53 percent support from voters as results roll in

SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utah voters backed an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the Beehive State, with more than 53 percent in support of the measure out of nearly 740,000 ballots counted, according to results posted late Tuesday.

According to state elections officials, around 815,000 ballots had been cast in Utah during this election, a 58 percent turnout rate.

Regardless of the final outcome of the vote, however, state lawmakers are expected to convene soon in an effort to pass a compromise bill agreed to by major supporters and opponents of Proposition 2, effectively replacing the ballot initiative.

About 150 Proposition 2 supporters, including members of the Utah Patients Coalition, gathered at the Infinity Event Center downtown Tuesday let up a loud cheer upon seeing first results on the initiative.

The Infinity Event Center had the relaxed atmosphere of a self-assured campaign throughout the lead-up to the numbers being released, as supporters enjoyed pizza, listened to live music, talked and watched CNN on a large projector. Most who were looking on did not seem surprised at the early favorable results on the initiative.

However, initial results showing 64 percent support dwindled gradually until hovering just above 54 percent later in the evening. By about 9:30 p.m., as the percentages tightened, the crowd had thinned out slightly.

Shortly before 9:30 p.m., Utah Patients Coalition Director DJ Schanz told the crowd gathered to more subdued applause that Summit and Grand counties, none of whose results had been reported, "are going to kill it, so we think we're looking good."

Results late Tuesday showed a divergence in support for Proposition 2 among the state's four largest counties, with well over half of counted votes in Salt Lake and Weber counties favoring it and solid majorities in Utah and Davis counties opposing it.

Any tense moments among the crowd had passed by just short of 11 p.m., when Schanz and others associated with the campaign declared victory. A few leaving the event punctuated the cold night air with shouts of, "We did it!"

"I called this (race) 18 months ago," Schanz joked, saying he was always confident the measure would make it across the finish line.

Schanz told the Deseret News he was confident the numbers would hold in favor of Proposition 2 when every vote is counted.

He said Utah voters' support of Proposition 2, which has polled strongly for more than a year in the state, "shows an emphasis … on compassion for people that are suffering."

Utah voters' day of decision on Proposition 2 comes after a drawn out and highly public battle over the future of medical marijuana in the state that saw a highly popular signature-gathering drive, which gobbled up more than 153,000 names, pitted against ardent opposition from influential medical, law enforcement and faith groups.

Opposition to the initiative intensified in late summer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in August urged the state's voters to reject Proposition 2 and emailed its Utah members with the same message.

At that time, the church joined a broad coalition that included state lawmakers, business leaders, the Utah Medical Association and the Utah Sheriff's Association to say that while there is a recognizable benefit to medical marijuana, Proposition 2 did not include enough safeguards to protect against troublesome youth access and unfettered recreational use.

Beginning in September, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes convened private talks between the initiative campaign, the Utah Medical Association, the church and others to see whether a compromise could be reached.

After dozens of hours of negotiations, the sides agreed to support the text of a compromise bill they drafted together, regardless of Proposition 2's Election Day outcome, and rolled back campaign advertising purchases.

In announcing the compromise, they said it struck the right balance between ensuring access for patients while involving medical professionals more in patients' purchase and use of marijuana and curbing opportunities for unenforced abuse.

Gov. Gary Herbert at the time announced a special session to be held shortly after the election to pass the compromise, and legislative leaders promised to do everything they can to make sure it is enacted.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who has had a hand in multiple pieces of marijuana-related legislation in recent years, said the understanding in the Utah House of Representatives is that in the event of voters approving Proposition 2, "that … puts us back to Dec. 3, when we can first reasonably meet" for a special session.

That's because "the initiative does not legally come into effect until after the canvas," Daw said, and "we can't take any action to modify the initiative until after it comes into effect."

However, if Proposition 2 is defeated by voters, "the date that's been floated out there is Nov. 14," Daw said.

Despite the compromise, neither the initiative campaign nor its detractors recanted their position on whether or not it should pass, with each side prizing the leverage voters could give them on Election Day.

The compromise makes some adjustments to which qualifying conditions can get a person a medical cannabis card under Proposition 2, by changing the definition of chronic pain, for example.

Unlike Proposition 2, the compromise does not allow a person living 100 miles or more from a dispensary to grow up to six of their own plants.

The compromise also significantly decreases the number of facilities in Utah allowed to sell marijuana and requires a licensed pharmacist to work there, both of which are changes compared to the initiative.

The compromise keeps the permitted use of whole flower marijuana, but only when it is broken up into a blister pack, with each blister containing a maximum of 1 gram.

A modified version of the compromise bill was published on the Utah Legislature's website Tuesday. The new version narrows the definition of which employers may not "take an adverse employment action against" a worker or decline to hire a person on the sole basis of their marijuana use, and now applies that requirement only to public employers rather than private businesses.

The updated compromise makes slight adjustments to how long some medical cannabis cards remain valid and somewhat widens which post-traumatic stress disorder patients may qualify for a medical cannabis card.

The updated compromise also says police officers may not enforce any law in a way that "restricts an individual's right" to own a gun "based solely" on their legal possession or use of marijuana.

Opponents respond

The Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which argued that Proposition 2 should be defeated irrespective of the compromise expected to supersede it, said Tuesday the result did not change their focus on ensuring the compromise bill comes to fruition.

"Following the Savior Jesus Christ, relieving human pain and suffering, while protecting children, truly is at the heart of our interest in this matter. … Our expectation is that prompt legislative action will address the shortfalls of the initiative which have been acknowledged by advocates of Proposition 2," said Marty Stephens, director of community and government relations for the church, in a statement.

"The legislative alternative is better public policy and has broad support among Utahns."

Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, was optimistic the compromise will garner enough support in the Utah Legislature during the special session.

"We've given a lot and I know the other side has given some, and I think that's what makes the process work," McOmber said.