For Candidates in Utah, Medical Marijuana Issue Looms Large

Published on October 18, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020
FILE - This Sept. 16, 2016, file photo, Democratic challenger Mike Weinholtz speaks during his first debate with Gov. Gary Herbert, in Salt Lake City. A Utah prosecutor says he intends to file misdemeanor drug charges against the wife of Democratic candidate Weinholtz after investigators found Donna Weinholtz trying to mail a small amount of marijuana to the couple's home in California. Tooele County's chief deputy attorney Gary Searle says federal investigators later found Donna Weinholtz had about two pounds of the drug at the couple's Salt Lake City home. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File )

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Hours after his wife pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cannabis possession charges connected with two pounds of the plant found at their house, Utah’s Democratic candidate for governor pushed Tuesday for the legalization of medical marijuana.

Mike Weinholtz said during an emotional news conference that current laws leave doctors with little choice but to prescribe powerful painkillers with a risk of addiction that have made opioid drugs an epidemic in Utah and elsewhere. Cannabis reduced Donna Weinholtz’s pain so she could do things like ride bikes with her son and plant tulip bulbs, the couple said.

“What would you do if the person you love most in the world was faced with that decision?” he said. “Would you report them to the police? Would you insist they stop and live with pain too severe to sleep at night?”

Donna Weinholtz, 61, said marijuana was the best way for her to treat arthritis and degenerative spinal conditions that left her unable to get out of bed, sometimes for weeks.

“I, like many Utahns, made a deliberate and conscious decision to use cannabis knowing full well that it is against the law,” she said. “I have faith the law will change.”

Conservative Utah has a very limited medical cannabis law allowing those with severe epilepsy to use cannabis extract oil that doesn’t contain psychoactive properties.

Two proposals to expand access to medical marijuana died in the state legislature this year. A Utah legislative committee is expected to discuss the issue tomorrow.

Mike Weinholtz first revealed the investigation into his wife during his party’s convention in April, shortly after the probe began when postal workers found a small amount of cannabis she tried to mail to a home the couple owns in California.

Medical marijuana has become a polarizing issue in the generally conservative state as the election season heats up, but many agree the state’s current hard-line approach is due for reform. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop and his Democratic opponent Dr. Peter Clemens clashed during a debate on cannabis, climate change, and the Republican’s continued support for Donald Trump.

Bishop said he didn’t think the federal government should be involved in the issue at all, saying that “the state should have the right to legislate and regulate as they wish.” He acknowledged there could be some justification for medical, though not recreational, cannabis consumption.

Clemens, by contrast, said cannabis could be a viable alternative to addictive opioid painkiller drugs, and federal authorities should have an important role in regulating it so each state doesn’t have to set up its own Food & Drug Administration.

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“Doctors need other tools in their toolbox to help take care of chronic pain. I agree with 65 percent of Utahns that it’s time we took a really serious look at medical cannabis,” he said.

The plea deal Donna Weinholtz struck with prosecutors Tuesday calls for a fine and probation rather than jail time.

Donna Weinholtz pleaded guilty to two counts, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. She agreed to serve one year of probation and pay a $3,800 fine in the plea deal that also calls for her record to be cleared if she stays out of trouble for the next year.

Tooele County Chief Deputy Attorney Gary Searle has said it appears she had the drug for personal use, and there’s no evidence her husband was aware of it. His office got the case after federal prosecutors declined to file charges and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office bowed out for political reasons.

Donna Weinholtz had faced up to six months in jail if convicted.

She was also one of 13 people arrested in 2014 as part of a protest over the Republican-dominated Legislature’s refusal to hold a hearing on an anti-discrimination law that included sexual and gender orientation protections. It passed the following year.

In that case, she got probation and paid a $100 fine after she and other protesters blocked the doors to a committee meeting room.

Mike Weinholtz is a wealthy businessman facing an uphill battle this year to try to unseat Republican Gov. Gary Herbert in an overwhelmingly GOP state.

Herbert campaign manager Marty Carpenter declined to comment Tuesday.

Lead Image: Rick Bowmer/AP

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