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Medical cannabis becomes complicated in Utah

By Meg Ellis
Nov 27, 2018

A proposed compromise bill drafted by both proponents and opponents of medical marijuana may supersede the will of Utah’s voters.

On November 7, Utahns approved Proposition 2, making Utah the 32nd state in the Union to adopt a medical marijuana program. An eleventh-hour “compromise” bill written with the intention to override Proposition 2, in the event of its passage or failure, received new edits for a second time earlier this week.

Proposition 2 surprisingly passed with 52.75 percent of Utahn voters, in spite of a heated campaign lead by the Utah Medical Association and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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Before the November election, both sides of the cannabis campaign agreed to de-escalate their efforts and instead promote a compromise bill, one that would appease all political players. Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes even promised to pass the bill, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

 

What did the people vote for?

In accordance with Utah law, medical cannabis can be grown in the state and processed for sale by January 1. However, it may only be grown, processed, or sold by the Utah government, and only a qualified research institution or a person who is terminally ill with less than half a year to live may access it.

While Prop 2 would not have eliminated Utah’s existing cannabis regulations, it would have made specific amendments, allowing a path for more patients to receive legal medical marijuana.

Specifically, private facilities could grow, process, and sell medical cannabis. Additionally, Prop 2 expanded the number of conditions eligible for medical marijuana treatment. These new regulations were to go into effect by March 1, 2020.

What the new compromise bill would do

In its current form, the bill would permit the state to license up to seven medical marijuana pharmacies. It is an increase from the bill’s previous language, which would have legalized only five pharmacies.

Additionally, if Utah’s state-run central medical marijuana pharmacy is not operational by January 1, 2021, the state will increase the number of licenses from seven to ten. The proposed bill also removes a restriction on landlords prohibiting them from refusing to rent to a person solely on the basis of the renter having a medical marijuana card.

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The bill requires that any patient under 21 years old must receive secondary approval for medical marijuana as a treatment option. Specifically, they must receive approval from a state-appointed panel made up of medical professionals —seven medical providers, two of which must be pediatricians — to be called the “Compassionate Use Board.”

Reading the fine print

The proposed compromise bill limits marijuana growing facilities in terms of square footage, although growers may apply to the state each year to increase their lots by up to 20 percent.

The Libertas Institute, one of the major advocacy groups and largest in-state-donor proponents of Prop 2 claims that the latest edits to the compromise bill are an adjustment from the originally agreed upon compromises taken on both sides.

“The latest round of edits largely incorporates feedback we received from doctors, patients, legislators, attorneys, and other advocates. They are mostly minor changes that are fairly consistent with previous modifications made to Prop 2,” Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute said in a statement.

“Libertas is especially pleased that there will be an additional two dispensaries to help alleviate patient access and a potential bottleneck that might come from having a more limited distribution system [under the compromise bill],” Boyack concluded.

Surprising support and opposition to compromise

One of the major opponents to Prop 2 has been the compromise bill’s most fervent supporters: the Utah Medical Association. The UMA is currently playing a central role in negotiations over the contents of the compromise.

In a statement, CEO of the UMA Michelle McOmber said that her organization appreciates the opportunity to participate in the bill’s development. “ We… feel that it is turning into a pretty good bill between all the input that has been received from all of the different groups and agencies,” she said.

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“Again, our intent has been to put appropriate parameters around a new drug we are allowing into our state to be used for medical purposes and to make sure that drug will only be allowed for medical purposes, that the medical marijuana will be appropriately recommended, appropriately dosed, appropriately tracked, and appropriately dispensed and that law enforcement will be able to track what is legal and what is not,” McOmber concluded, according to Desert News Utah.

Meanwhile, advocates for Prop 2 are in steadfast opposition to the compromise bill. Pro-Prop 2 group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, argued that the bill goes against the will of the people, and is a usurpation of the electoral process

What’s next for Utah?

The Health and Human Services Interim Committee held a meeting on November 26, during which the most recent version of the compromise bill was available for public discussion. The most recent amendments to the proposed compromise bill made changes to Prop 2 but maintained other significant portions of the voter-approved initiative.

Both pro-medical marijuana voters and anti-cannabis activists will need to keep a close eye on the bill’s language as it goes through the amendment process.

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