BY BRADY MCCOMBS AND HALLIE GOLDEN
ASSOCIATED PRESS

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah's staunchly conservative legislature came close to eliminating the death penalty and gave serious consideration to setting up a system to grow and distribute medical marijuana - making the 2016 session a surprising one that may foreshadow future traction for progressive issues.

Lawmakers still showed their conservative colors by approving another abortion regulation and passing a resolution that declared pornography a public health crisis.

But the legislature's newfound openness to traditionally left-leaning issues caught people's attention.

"We had some good debates this year on a lot of different issues that don't usually come up," said Sen. Gene Davis, a Democrat and minority leader.

The lean toward progressive issues was led by a pair of outgoing GOP lawmakers who went all in on their bills. Sen. Mark Madsen led the medical marijuana push, while Sen. Steve Urquhart pushed the death penalty abolishment.

Urquhart also backed a failed measure that would have added discrimination protections for gay and transgender people. A year ago, a successful bill he co-sponsored and was backed by the Mormon church guaranteed protection for LGBT people from housing and employment discrimination, while also protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.

The death penalty repeal measure was viewed as a long shot proposal, but Urquhart framed the issue in terms that appealed to lawmakers' libertarian leanings. He argued that the punishment is costly and gives imperfect governments a godlike power over life and death.

Decriminalizing marijuana and reassessing whether the death penalty is a good use of taxpayer funds are issues gaining traction among conservatives around the country, said Marina Lowe of ACLU of Utah

"Talking about getting smarter with our dollars when it comes to fighting crime, and making sure we're not needlessly putting people in jail and costing people taxpayer money, those are conservative arguments," Lowe said.

The discussions wouldn't have happened five years ago, showing an evolution of thought among Utah Republicans that mirrors a national trend toward a more Libertarian view on certain social issues, said Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann.

"There's an openness to a dialogue and thoughtful conversation about a wide range of social issues that aren't marked as being taboo for Republicans," Cann said.

One issue that the GOP remains steadfast on is abortion. Utah legislators approved a measure that would require doctors to administer anesthesia prior to an abortion performed after 20 weeks' gestation. The proposal is based on the disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain at that point.

Madsen's marijuana plan would have made edible, vapor and topical marijuana products legal in Utah for those with chronic pain. He said it would have put Utah in line with more than 20 other states with medical marijuana programs.

A restrictive proposal by two GOP lawmakers would have allowed those with certain debilitating conditions to use cannabis-based medicine that has very low levels of the plant's psychoactive components.

Utah's death penalty debate is one of many around the nation examining capital punishment. Nebraska's Republican-controlled Legislature voted last year to abolish the death penalty over a veto from that state's GOP governor. But death penalty supporters quickly launched a petition drive, leaving Nebraska voters to decide the issue this November.

A shortage of lethal-injection drugs in the U.S. in recent years has led several states to pass or consider laws to bring back other execution methods, such as electrocution. Last year, Utah lawmakers voted to reinstate firing squads as a backup method to ensure the state had a way to kill death row inmates if it couldn't get lethal-injection drugs.

Proponents of medical marijuana and a death penalty repeal vowed to come back stronger next year, buoyed by what they saw as progress this year.

"It definitely has pushed the needle on both of these issues," Lowe said.

A group pushing for the legal use of marijuana for certain chronic conditions is trying to gather enough signatures to get an initiative on November's ballot.

Rep. Greg Hughes, the Republican speaker of the House, publicly came out in support of repealing the death penalty and said it's a position he's privately considered for some time.

Those kind of stories give Urquhart optimism for future legislative sessions.

"I see the willingness of elected officials to actually open their eyes, open their minds to consider a different view on something they've probably thought about their entire lives," he said. "My guess is the death penalty will be repealed in Utah in a year or two or three."

(Photo Courtesy of Extract.SunTimes.com)