Utah passes cannabis legislation
By James Tilson
SALT LAKE CITY—The Utah Legislature passed the Utah Medical Cannabis Act in a special session Monday, an act that was the culmination of negotiations between supporters and opponents of Proposition 2.
The votes were largely along party lines with Republicans voting yes and Democrats no. The measure passed the House by 60-13 and the Senate by 22-4. Gov. Gary Herbert signed it into law Monday night.
Local legislators, who all voted for the compromise bill, were unified in asserting the new bill was better than Proposition 2 because it put better safeguards in place against recreational use and imposed stronger controls over distribution by prescription.
Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, who noted the majority of his constituents voted against Proposition 2, said the compromise bill represented the interests of all Utah voters, rural and urban.
He said he was persuaded to support the bill because it protected against potential recreational use. If the Legislature had failed to pass the compromise, Proposition 2 would have gone into effect.
Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, echoed Albrecht’s sentiments about the protections in the compromise bill. He said the bill approved in the special session “put a firewall around Prop 2.”
He added, “I think the Prop 2 supporters should be excited by the passage of this bill, because it will get cannabis to patients sooner. The state will invest in the infrastructure and make sure it gets done faster.”
Owens said he had always been in favor of medical marijuana, as long as there was proper government control to prevent medical marijuana from being diverted to recreational use.
Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who also voted in favor of the compromise bill, could not be reached for comment.
In order to receive medical marijuana, a patient must have one of 16 qualifying conditions. They are HIV or AIDS, Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS, cancer, cachexia, persistent nausea, Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis, epilepsy or debilitating seizures, multiple sclerosis and pain lasting more than two weeks.
Others are PTSD, autism, terminal illness, any condition resulting in a patient being in hospice care, or a “rare” disease or condition, defined as one affecting 200,000 or fewer patients nationwide. A person who does not have one of the defined conditions but wants to try cannabis can appeal to a Compassionate Use Board.
The bill permits physicians, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, doctoral level psychologists and social workers, and providers with the U.S. veteran’s administration to write a “recommendation” for cannabis, tantamount to a prescription.
The written recommendation is transmitted to one of the pharmacies authorized to dispense cannabis or to the local health department, where the patient may pick it up.
Unlike Proposition 2, the new bill does not permit smoking marijuana or marijuana edibles. The bill permits distribution in the form of oils, topicals (like a salve), tinctures (a small, concentrated dose placed on or under the tongue) or lozenges.
It can also be sold in blister packs, with a pack containing 1 gram, a little less than the typical marijuana cigarette. The crushed plant material in a blister pack could be put in a special vaporizer and the patient could breathe the vapor.
The bill was a result of negotiations that led up to the election. Supporters of Prop 2 were afraid the proposition would not pass without the cooperation of opponents, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thus, the bill does not go nearly as far as Prop 2 did, but it was supported by the majority of the Republican legislature.
The Utah Legislature official press release called the bill “a result of members of the House and Senate, Governor’s Office, stakeholders and advocacy groups willing to put differences aside to find common ground on a complex issue.”
It went on to say the purpose of the compromise bill was to create a “best practices approach” for medical use of cannabis, provide proper oversight by trained medical professionals, and address public safety concerns in protecting children and youth.
The major differences between the bill and Prop 2 are a significant reduction in the number of dispensaries, from up to 40 in Prop 2 to 7-10 under the compromise bill; prohibiting most edibles; and removing most autoimmune illnesses from the list of qualifying illnesses.
The vote on the compromise bill broke down along party divisions, with Republicans touting the protections enacted within the bill, while Democrats decried that the Legislature was not respecting the will of the people and creating a bureaucracy to control medical cannabis that flew in the face of Republican arguments of not creating a “nanny state” or over-regulating the lives of Utah’s citizens.