Sutherland Institute should claim their role in the ‘NASCAR pileup’

This op-ed originally appeared at Utah Policy.com

In a recent op-ed, Rick Larsen, the president of Sutherland Institute, makes a call for increased civility surrounding the medical marijuana ballot initiative.

He bemoans the spectacle that the discourse has become– like “a NASCAR pileup”– and frets that ultimately, uninformed voting on ballot initiatives could lead to anarchy. While we certainly agree with Larsen’s call for increased civility, we would add to it a call for increased transparency– which includes Sutherland being upfront about its own pot-stirring behavior. Unfortunately, Larsen’s hand-wringing here seems disingenuous.

“This debate,” Larsen writes, “and those caught in the middle, deserve so much more than front-porch ambushes, social media character assassinations and, now, litigation.” The litigation he refers to is a motion for an emergency injunction which would prohibit Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox from including the medical marijuana initiative on the ballot this November, regardless of whether it obtains sufficient signatures.

The motion was brought by Drug Safe Utah, a coalition of organizations and individuals of which Sutherland Institute is a member. Its purpose is to prevent the medical marijuana ballot initiative from passing–earlier, through a signature-removal campaign, and now, through litigation. It is strange that Larsen would decry this litigation in his op-ed and not mention Sutherland’s involvement in bringing the suit.

Not that you would know it from Drug Safe Utah’s website. Sutherland isn’t listed online as a member of the coalition.

May 22:

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Or rather, they aren’t anymore. The same day Larsen’s op-ed was published, Sutherland was quietly removed from the “Coalition Members” list, and placed instead under “Others Opposing the Initiative.” Until then, they had been publicly listed as members of the coalition.
May 21:
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Previously, talking points prepared by Drug Safe Utah for their paid canvassers also listed Sutherland as a coalition member.
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Drug Safe Utah’s past signature-removal efforts call into question Larsen’s true commitment to “fair competition in the arena of sound ideas and principled solutions.” This campaign spent large amounts of money to knock on the doors of a targeted small number of Utahns and convince them they had been deceived or misinformed by the medical marijuana campaign. Drug Safe Utah’s competitive response to a campaign that collected some 190,000 signatures was to reach out to only a few hundred Utahns in key Senate districts.
The only recording of these rescission efforts on the public record doesn’t look good. And while this particular volunteer was written off as uninformed and off script, it’s the closest thing we have to really knowing what was said on the doorsteps of Utahns who had signed the initiative and were subsequently encouraged to remove their names. The Utah Medical Association also refuted claims that a controversial script was provided to canvassers by the rescission campaign. The signature-removal campaign felt full of political maneuvering and manipulation, entirely designed to take advantage of Utah’s quirky ballot initiative law that allows such a 30-day, targeted rescission effort. Not exactly the high-minded civil conversation that Larsen was encouraging.
Now that Drug Safe Utah’s signature-recission campaign has ended and its litigious phase begun, it would seem that Sutherland Institute is, once again, part of the very same problem Larsen criticizes in his op-ed.
The warning that community standards are at stake if we don’t stop this accelerating public debate over medical marijuana is less than credible coming from an organization that contributed to the very situation we are in. If Sutherland Institute wants to call on others to be honest information brokers, it should first remove the beam from its own eye and take responsibility for its actions that nudged fellow drivers to the pile-up Larsen now decries. Publicly calling for the dismissal of the lawsuit and for an honest debate in the public square between now and November would be a perfect start.
Larsen writes, “You as the voter will need to make the call as to whether this effort is driven by morals, compassion or revenue.” Voters should always make every effort to educate themselves, and so we encourage them to ask this same question not only of the campaign to legalize medical marijuana, but also of the campaign to block voters’ opportunity to decide. After all, it is only civil to look at all sides.

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