This article by Alan Pyke originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org.
Federal officials are getting dragged into a state-level fight over medical marijuana, after opponents of a ballot initiative to legalize the idea in Utah claimed that the Drug Enforcement Agency supports their efforts.
The group, Drug Safe Utah, is a registered political organization fronting for the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum – the organization once run by the late PhyllisSchlafly – and the state’s health care lobby, the Utah Medical Association. But Drug Safe Utah’s registration papers with the state also list a third organization as “affiliated” with its work: the DEA’s Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force.
A spokesman at DEA’s national headquarters said the agency does not support or endorse any proposed legislation anywhere, and that it follows the Hatch Act on all political activity. He directed more specific questions about the Salt Lake City office’s interactions with the Eagle Forum/UMA campaign group to a colleague in Denver who did not immediately respond to questions.
Whatever the agency’s policy or intentions here, its Salt Lake City staff have handed the UMA/Eagle Forum group a potent political weapon in their campaign against the medical pot ballot measure: the appearance of law enforcement backing.
“Our reasoning behind wanting to put some law enforcement behind it is I think it adds legitimacy to the campaign when law enforcement is seen as being on your side,” Utah Medical Association VP for Communications Mark Fotheringham told ThinkProgress.
That’s exactly the kind of reputation-borrowing that the DEA’s non-participation policies on local political affairs are designed to avoid. The Hatch Act prohibits public employees from spending taxpayer time on partisan politics – but a pot ballot measure isn’t inherently partisan, potentially leaving enough leeway for a DEA staffer to feel confident that helping Schlafly’s and Fotheringham’s groups is legally safe.
Drug Safe Utah isn’t just knocking on doors to ask voters to vote “no” on medical pot. They’re trying to prevent any vote from happening at all by seeking out the individuals who signed the ballot measure petition and asking them to rescind their support, in hopes of keeping the proposed medical marijuana system from going to voters at all.
Utah law allows opponents of a proposed ballot initiative up to one month to convince petition signers to cross their names out before the state officially determines if an idea has enough support to go before voters. The group’s campaign already has an influential endorsement from the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Mormon Church’s leadership have publicly rejected the medical marijuana plan. The church has provided “absolutely no” material support to the canvassing work, Fotheringham said, just its public opposition to the ballot plan.
By adding the DEA’s name to work already backed by church leaders, Drug Safe Utah is using two of the highest moral authorities in Utah public life to press petition signers to withdraw their support.
Any such interference with the duly signed petitions process that Utahns have for populist bypassing of politicians would be disquieting to transparency and democracy advocates, said Chase Thomas of the Alliance for a Better Utah. But leading voters to believe that federal law enforcement has taken sides in the campaign goes even further.
“This is supposed to be a citizen’s initiative. It’s part of the constitutional powers in Utah that citizens have a right they can invoke” to bring laws forward on their own, Thomas said. “A federal government task force trying to keep this off the ballot seems even worse than private citizens or corporations doing so.”
Click here to read the entire article from ThinkProgress.