BY LINDSAY WHITEHURST and BRADY McCOMBS
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Voters in conservative Utah have decided to join the growing number of states legalizing medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid to cover tens of thousands more low-income residents, two issues that had long stalled out with conservative state lawmakers.
Utah will be on the list of more than 30 states allowing patients legal access to medical marijuana after the plan maintained a vote lead in in Friday tabulations. The measure will be revised, though, under a compromise that won the approval of influential Mormon church leaders.
The faith had opposed the ballot proposal over fears it could lead to broader use, but after months of fierce debate agreed to the deal. It will change the law by blocking marijuana edibles like cookies that might appeal to children and won’t allow people to grow their own marijuana if they live too far from a dispensary.
The state Legislature is expected to meet in early December to hammer out the details of revising the newly passed law.
Missouri also passed a medical marijuana initiative in this midterm election. Michigan became the first Midwestern state to legalize recreational marijuana while North Dakota voted against it.
Utah’s approval of medical marijuana shows the state’s residents can think for themselves despite opposition from powerful groups such as the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of Utah’s population, said DJ Schanz, director of the group that put the proposition on the ballot.
“We’re excited that these sick and ailing patients will finally be able to find relief without being criminalized in Utah,” said Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition. “This a big message that Utahns are compassionate people … that people can think and vote autonomously.”
With the Medicaid vote, Utah joins two other Republican-leaning states, Idaho and Nebraska, where voters also approved expanding the program under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“We’ve got a mandate from the public,” said Matt Slonaker, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project. His group supported the plan to provide health care coverage to an estimated 150,000 of the state’s low-income residents.
Most of those people work, but they don’t have access to health insurance through their jobs, often because they are part-time, advocate RyLee Curtis said.
“This has been six years in the making, so it’s exciting to finally be able to tell people they can access the health care they’ve been waiting so long for,” she said.
The measure includes a sales tax increase that is expected to generate $90 million that will combine with $800 million in federal money to fund the expansion.
State lawmakers, however, remain concerned the plan wouldn’t cover the cost of the program. Incoming Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said Friday the state already struggles to fund schools because of the state’s large families, so lawmakers fear full Medicaid expansion could cut into education dollars.
“The legislature has some tough decisions to make regarding which programs will receive less funding in the future,” he said in a statement.
Curtis, though, said advocates calculated the sales-tax increase to more than cover the costs estimated by state analysts.
On both issues, advocates decided to go to the voters after years of failing to convince the GOP-dominated state Legislature to change state law.
Utah lawmakers did approve a smaller expansion measure with work requirements this year. But the federal government hasn’t yet accepted that plan.
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