SALT LAKE CITY — Among those who applied to grow medical cannabis in Utah, some have ties to the Utah State Legislature.
FOX 13 submitted a public records request last year with Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food seeking the names of the companies that wanted a license to grow medical cannabis under the state-run program. The agency declined to provide the applications, but recently provided a list of dozens of names of those who applied. Analyzing the list, FOX 13 found two companies with ties to the legislature.
One application was submitted by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who chairs the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, which sometimes hears cannabis bills. In an interview with FOX 13, Rep. Stratton said he wanted to understand firsthand how the process worked.
"We weren’t interested in actually being awarded the contract but just from the perspective of looking at the other side," Rep. Stratton said.
Rep. Stratton's company, Stratton & Bratt Landscaping, is listed on his conflict of interest disclosure form that every lawmaker must fill out. At the time Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food opened up applications it was not prohibited, nor was he granted one of the 10 licenses.
"At the time of the override bill, I wasn’t aware that would even be a possibility and how it was going to work out," Rep. Stratton said.
House Majority Whip Michael Schultz, R-Hooper, also confirmed his father had applied for a medical cannabis grow license, and was also not awarded one.
But Christine Stenquist of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), a medical cannabis advocacy group, questions if it still presented a conflict of interest for lawmakers.
"It does concern me especially since there was such a heavy hand from the legislature in reversing Prop. 2," she said.
Proposition 2 was a citizen ballot initiative that legalized medical cannabis in Utah. But shortly after it passed, the legislature overrode it with a bill crafted as a result of a compromise between medical marijuana supporters and opponents including the Utah Patients Coaltion (which sponsored Prop. 2), the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"When you have legislators who are creating laws and you have themselves trying to apply for a business, or their family members, when they have that direct influence on our lawmaking and they could benefit? Yes, it’s very problematic and it doesn’t matter what issue it is," Stenquist said.
But Connor Boyack with the Libertas Institute, which also backed Prop. 2 and has been negotiating with lawmakers on bills dealing with medical cannabis, takes a different view.
"A lot of lawmakers over the years have been very ignorant about cannabis," he said in an interview with FOX 13. "The more experience we can give them and if that means direct involvement in the industry, I see that as a plus."
Boyack said he wants to see members of the citizen legislature with more familiarity on the subject of medical cannabis.
"Look, we’re a free market organization. That’s our perspective on this whole issue," Boyack said, referencing his libertarian-leaning group. "So over time, I would hope to see more elected officials jumping in and participating in this new market."
FOX 13 found in reviewing the list of applicants that other political figures in Utah did have some ties of varying degrees. Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler is listed as general counsel for one company that applied. Proposition 2 campaign organizers Alex Iorg and DJ Schanz were awarded a license for a grow facility.
In November, when lawmakers met in special session to revise Utah's medical cannabis laws again, a ban was implemented on legislators participating in the growing or dispensing process. Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who ran that bill, said he had no knowledge of any colleagues possibly having an interest in growing medical cannabis.
Sen. Vickers said the idea for a ban came from a lawmaker in another state, who suggested it to avoid problems in the future.
"If nothing else, take the temptation away," he said.
Sen. Vickers has faced criticism from medical cannabis advocates who say his day job, a pharmacist, poses a problem as he sponsored the medical cannabis bills in the legislature.
"There’s a lot of things we do up here and anytime you’re doing business-related things, you have to kind of be sensitive to that. I’ve had a lot of people ask me, 'Are you going to apply for one of these pharmacy licenses?' I said, 'No, that would be inappropriate,' number one," he told FOX 13. "Of course, now I couldn’t do it anyway I put [that] language in the law."
Rep. Stratton said for him, the application process alone was informative as he has some sensitivity to how their laws impact cannabis businesses, including hemp and CBD.
"It was enlightening to go through the process. It helped me, frankly, in my policy decisions and making recommendations on improvement," he said.