Changes to Utah’s medical cannabis law could push implementation past March 1 deadline

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The changes to Utah’s new medical marijuana law were unveiled Monday during a public hearing on Capitol Hill.

A special legislative session next Monday will vote the changes through, hopefully in time for “medical dosages” of the drug to be in patients hands by March 1, a previously-promised deadline.

Here are the proposed changes as explained by Senate sponsor Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, a licensed pharmacist: 

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The major difference, as previously reported, is doing away with the state-run central dispensaries (originally county health departments) in favor of up to 12 private dispensaries, licensed by the state.

Several patient advocates said 12 such dispensaries would not be enough.

While opponents of medical marijuana said they were too many, and anyway such a change violated carefully crafted compromises to last December’s rework of Prop 2 — the medical marijuana citizen initiative petition that was approved by voters last November.

“Why are we doing this?” asked Gayle Ruzicka, president of Utah Eagle Forum, a pro-traditional family group. “Taking the central dispensaries out?” she asked.

“We were asked to back off” Eagle Forum’s opposition to medical marijuana — in part because the folks asking were well thought of, she said.

“Because the compromise would be better than Prop 2,” and the central fill dispensaries “were a major part of that” agreement. “And now you are changing what we backed off for before it even goes into effect.”

This is nothing short of state nullification — or giving the states the power to reject federal law if they wish — marijuana in any form is still against federal law.

“We all trusted this wouldn’t happen” — such a drastic change to the promised compromise, Ruzicka said.

Walter Plumb, who fought Prop 2 publicly, said local cities that don’t want an illegal drug sold or grown in their areas should be allowed to “opt-out” of such activity.

But part of the changes pushed by Vickers limits how cities can amend their zoning ordinances to outlaw medical marijuana sales or grow operations.

Plumb said 20 of 29 state Senate districts voted against Prop 2 — that Salt Lake County carried the initiative to victory statewide.

“Let cities decide for themselves,” with places like Bountiful, Lehi and Provo acting to stop medical marijuana sales or growing.

But Vickers said the key to getting the drug to patients statewide is to have 12 geographically-located sales locations, with growing operations within reasonable distances, as well.

In fact, said Vickers, who has worked on medical marijuana issues for several years, it will be challenging to meet the promised March 1 deadline unless the Legislature overrides some local governments’ zoning or approval processes, for at least two years so that growers can be licensed and produce enough product by next spring.

There are several new elements to medical marijuana procedures in the special session aimed at helping patients:

— Local research universities can be licensed to buy and study marijuana — in efforts to make the drug better for patients.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, asked if Brigham Young University couldn’t be included as a “research” university.

Really, BYU (owned by the LDS Church, which opposed Prop 2) wants to study medical marijuana, asked a skeptical Vickers.

— Judges and prosecutors will be stopped from ordering a medical marijuana patient, who somehow violates the law, from using the drug after conviction or a plea deal.

Patients advocates said one mother, who tested positive for THC, is at risk of losing her two children to state custody — and that is wrong.

Emotional testimony by several folks, one saying a mom “high” on marijuana can’t take proper care of her children; a mother started crying when she said she is a “great mother” who, with small doses of THC, is a better mom than when using opioids for her painful conditions.

— A state-employed doctor or pharmacist will be available to help patients understand what form of the drug should be used, and dosages, if a prescribing physician doesn’t want to take responsibility of prescribing that kind of specific product.

The March 1 deadline should be met if possible, said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, the committee co-chairman, or parts of the public would revolt over the delay.

One man, whose wife died of cancer, and had to violate the law to use medical marijuana (which helped her pain) warned if patients’ needs aren’t met: “We will burn it down in 2020, hold on to your seats!”