RIVERTON, Utah -- Gov. Gary Herbert was responding to a middle school student's question when he raised the eyebrows of some of the adults in the room.
Speaking to a class at South Hills Middle School on Wednesday, the governor was asked by a girl if he thought medical marijuana would be legalized in Utah.
"I think they will," he declared, before issuing some caveats to the crowd of students.
"Let’s get the science done, the research done, have it as a controlled substance prescribed by a doctor, and certified by a pharmacist as a controlled medical substance. I think that’s the way to go," then added: "I think it’s gonna happen."
Asked by FOX 13 to clarify if he was referring to the potential ballot initiative on medical cannabis or action in the Utah State Legislature, the governor stepped back a bit.
"I think sometime. Not the ballot initiative necessarily or anything in the legislature, but in time, if we get the science to back up the fact there is a medicinal use for marijuana, that it does cure pain as a medicine," he said.
The governor continued to express his long-held concerns about federal laws on marijuana conflicting with state changes.
When pressed if he believed a medical marijuana ballot initiative would pass, the governor told FOX 13: "Based on the polling it shows certainly, there’s a slight majority who those who favor it, but they favor it as a medicine. I think that’s different than recreational use."
Gov. Herbert has taken a cautious approach to the concept of medical marijuana, even as frustrated advocates for it have pushed forward with a ballot initiative to legalize it in Utah. In 2016, the governor was criticized for his choice of words when the topic was being debated in the Utah State Legislature.
"I think the discussion is now at hand, the time is nigh, to see if we can find a pathway forward on this," Herbert said at the time. "But I'm not interested in having Dr. Feelgood out there say 'Yeah, yeah. Qué pasa? You know, here's your doobie for the day and you'll feel better.' That's probably not where I want to go."
In 2017, he supported some lawmakers' push for more research before proceeding with any medical cannabis legalization. In a March interview, the governor said he wanted to ensure there was sound public policy in place before proceeding.
Reacting to the governor's latest comments, backers of the medical marijuana ballot initiative were optimistic.
"It's great to see the governor has come a long way from 'Cheech and Chong' jokes back in 2016 to now acknowledging that this is going to become a reality for many of the patients out there," said DJ Schanz with the Utah Patients Coalition. "While he's not getting in front of the parade, he's at least acknowledging the parade is going on."
Schanz said signature gathering to get medical cannabis on the 2018 ballot are still under way. So far, the Utah Patients Coalition said it has turned in 85,000 signatures of the estimated 113,000 needed to qualify for the November ballot.