- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A three-year push to pass some kind of comprehensive medical marijuana law in Utah could come to a head when state lawmakers start their annual session Monday.

Lawmakers have spent the past few years studying the issue and are working on a package of bills to expand access to the drug beyond Utah’s existing program, which only allows those with severe epilepsy to take cannabis extract oil that won’t get them high. But any momentum created by their deep dive into the issue could lose steam amid uncertainty over President Donald Trump’s attorney general pick Jeff Sessions, an Alabama senator who has said he opposes loosening marijuana rules.

House Speaker Greg Hughes said last week that he doesn’t want to keep people from getting relief but he has reservations.

“It’s not a moral objection. It’s that we’re not doctors,” Hughes said.

A closer look at some of the biggest issues lawmakers will face before adjourning at midnight on March 9.

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MEDICAL MARIJUANA

This year, legislators have five bills in the works that would allow people with a number of conditions to take cannabis oil, spur more research on its effects treating certain conditions and set up tight rules about growing and distribution. Christine Stenquist, the executive director of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, one Utah group pushing for a law, said she’s not optimistic that lawmakers will pass broader laws like those in other states. If they don’t, she predicts groups like hers could pursue a ballot initiative to put the issue before voters in 2018. While some lawmakers, including Hughes, have said medical marijuana may be one tool to help fight an opioid addiction crisis, Stenquist doesn’t think enough legislators agree. “I think their concern is that cannabis is just another something that the population will just become addicted to and they’ll have a cannabis crisis,” she said.

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EDUCATION FUNDING

As Utah school districts are squeezed by higher health care and retirement costs and the state’s per-pupil funding that’s the lowest in the country, education advocates and a group of prominent businesspeople are campaigning for a higher state income tax. A group called Education First is planning a ballot initiative that would raise Utah’s income tax by 7/8th of one percent from the current rate of 5 percent, with the expectation it would generate about $750 a year for schools. Bob Marquardt, a co-chair of Education First, said his group is open to lawmakers stepping in and finding another option, but if it doesn’t do enough to bump up education spending, they’re still planning to move ahead with the ballot issue. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, a Logan Republican who chairs the public education budget committee, plans to hold hearings on the issue but said, “I would be shocked if I see anyone in the Legislature carrying a bill to increase income tax like that.” Hillyard and other lawmakers say they worry raising the rate could hurt Utah’s ability to attract businesses.

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HATE CRIMES

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, is reviving a failed proposal to beef up the state’s hate crimes law and include LGBT people. But Thatcher is calling his bill a “victim selection” law instead of hate crimes legislation. Thatcher said that’s because his bill focuses on a suspect who targets a victim because of their race, sexual orientation or religion, rather than focusing on thoughts or ideas that are protected free speech. His bill would increase penalties for that prosecutors believe targeted someone based on factors like race or religion, such as a class A misdemeanor crime becoming a third-degree felony, with longer time behind bars and higher fines.

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ABORTION

One new proposal would require Utah doctors to tell women that they may be able to reverse drug-induced abortions, despite most doctors saying there’s little evidence or science to back up that idea. Proponents of the idea say doctors can give a woman the hormone progesterone to stop an abortion after she has taken the first of two medications needed to complete the procedure. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says there is no medically accepted evidence that a drug-induced abortion can be reversed. Arizona passed a similar law but it was repealed after Planned Parenthood took the issue to court. Republican Rep. Keven Stratton of Orem has said he plans to speak with doctors about his bill but said it offers an opportunity for people to be educated about the options.

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