Utah lawmakers came close to passing a medical marijuana bill in 2016

At the end of the 2016 session, Utah lawmakers frantically tried to find a compromise with advocates of medical marijuana, but those efforts failed. 

Ultimately, who is to blame for that failure depends on who you talk to.

During the 2016 session, there were two competing bills to legalize medical marijuana. SB73 from Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, proposed a more expansive medical marijuana program, while SB89 sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, was much more conservative.

The two bills made it out of the Senate and passed to the House late in the session. 

UtahPolicy.com has learned of a last-ditch meeting held in Speaker Greg Hughes’ office to try and find common ground between lawmakers and medical marijuana proponents. That effort ultimately failed.

Lawmakers who were present in the meeting blame that failure on medical cannabis proponents for not being willing to find common ground. The pro-medical marijuana groups say the frenzy in the final hours of the session was not the proper place to be discussing substantive changes.

House Speaker Greg Hughes tells UtahPolicy.com he tasked members of the House Health and Human Services committee, which included four medical doctors, with trying to craft a bill that both sides could live with.  The late-session meeting was intended to see if any common ground could be found.

“I asked that committee to make a Reece’s peanut butter cup out of those two bills. But, at the end of the day, we could not arrive at a compromise,” says Hughes.

Ultimately, lawmakers put forward the 5th substitute of HB89, sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy. That legislation would have allowed doctors to prescribe CBD oils and specialists to prescribe products containing THC. Spendlove was disappointed his bill died on the House floor before receiving a vote. 

“We came up with what we thought was a great policy,” remembers Spendlove. “I still think what we developed in 2016 could be a good ultimate solution that would give people access, but also maintain proper controls.”

Spendlove is careful to point out that 5th substitute was put forward without input from medical cannabis proponents, the LDS Church or the Utah Medical Association.

The reason lawmakers moved ahead on their own was a direct result of that contentious meeting in Hughes’ office. Several attendees described the atmosphere as contentious and borderline hostile. 

“Nobody wanted to compromise on anything,” said Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, who was present in the meeting. “Nobody wanted to go to the middle. They just weren’t interested in changing the bill.”

“There were a lot of people at the table. No one would give any ground on how to make this thing better,” said one attendee who asked not to be identified. “In the end, we just had to go our separate ways.”

That’s not how Connor Boyack, President of the Libertas Institute, remembers things. He remembers being a part of that meeting and tells UtahPolicy.com he floated a radical solution that he believed would have solved the problem in short order. He suggested lawmakers consider “medical decriminalization,” which means the state would not prosecute anyone for possession of marijuana if they had a verifiable medical condition. 

“I offered a compromise that I thought would be superior,” said Boyack. “We don’t care about the dispensaries. Patients just care about the access.”

Boyack says that idea basically landed with a thud, which really surprised nobody.

Boyack says he, and other proponents of medical marijuana, were resistant to the alternative proposal from Spendlove and other members of the House. 

“Things were happening insanely quickly. Changes were being made every 15-20 minutes,” he says. “After working on this for two years, we weren’t comfortable with these substantive changes being made on the fly. We felt like we were being pushed every which way. It was just not a trustful environment.”

After the talks over a compromise fell apart, sources tell UtahPolicy.com House Speaker Greg Hughes did everything he could to give both bills the opportunity to be heard. Even though Vickers’ bill passed the Senate much earlier than Madsen’s, it was held in the House until Madsen’s bill could catch up. Eventually, after Madsen’s bill finally passed the Senate, Hughes was able to talk the House Health and Human Services Committee to delay hearing both bills to give Madsen a full weekend to lobby lawmakers.

Madsen’s bill was eventually defeated in committee, while Vickers’ proposal was advanced to the full House where it died without a vote.

Fast forward to the present. Lawmakers were able to pass “right to try” legislation in the 2018 session, giving terminally ill Utahns access to medical cannabis through state-run dispensaries. Those are set to go online in July of 2019 unless Prop. 2 passes. In that case, an expanded list of patients will get access to medical marijuana, with privately run dispensaries opening in 2020.

Hughes bristles at the generally accepted narrative that lawmakers failed to act on medical cannabis when the public was clearly behind the concept, which is why Prop. 2 is on the verge of passing in November.

“We had a pretty good bill in 2016,” said Hughes. “At the end of the day, we were not able to arrive at a compromise. We tried to thread that legislative needle, but just couldn’t get it done.”