Medical marijuana changes include more dispensaries, access for patients

Utah Capitol 18

With one considerable compromise, the Utah Legislature modified Monday night in a special session the controversial new medical marijuana law passed last December.

Lawmakers decided to increase the number of new private medical marijuana dispensaries to no less than 14.

Earlier versions of the bill set the number at no more than 12.

But advocates of the old Prop 2, which voters approved in November 2018, said the number of private dispensaries had to be higher than 12, or some rural folks who needed medical marijuana and prescribed so by an authorized physician, wouldn’t be able to reasonably get the drug.

With more dispensaries, it is hoped, along with other changes made Monday, rural ill people will be able to get the drug without too much trouble.

There is, of course, a long history to medical marijuana in Utah.

For years legislators — most conservative Republicans — took only baby steps towards allowing ill people to get access to the drug.

That brought about a citizen initiative petition in 2018 — Prop 2. But last summer leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out against Prop 2, saying, among other things, that it would make it too easy for youth to get the drug illegally.

House GOP leaders brought the church and sponsors of Prop 2 together.

The groups agreed to a modified medical marijuana bill, allowing for the growth, distribution and patient access law which was then adopted in a December special session, although some patient advocates still opposed that Prop 2 compromise.

But part of that December law required that local county health departments distribute the drug to patients. Local county attorneys then said they didn’t want their employees having anything to do with medical marijuana since the drug is still illegal under federal law.

So, in the bill passed Monday night, the health departments are substituted with no less than 14 private dispensaries, which will be licensed by the state.

In addition, patients who can’t reasonably get to the dispensaries can have the drug delivered to them by a certified carrier, after authorized doctors prescribe the drug according to law.

UtahPolicy.com has heard that some patient advocates believe the State Agriculture Department won’t be able to meet the March 1 deadline to have adequate medical marijuana available.

But various GOP legislative leaders tell UtahPolicy.com that the department intends to meet the March 1 deadline with enough grown, harvested, and collected marijuana to meet the needs.

While there may be upwards of 30,000 patients who ultimately want to try the drug to relieve pain, help with cancer treatments and so on, there won’t be near that many come March 1.

And over time, as other growers are licensed and produce product, and doctors prescribe the drug in approved forms (like liquid or ground-up product — it cannot be smoked), then there will be more dispensaries licensed.

In fact, the new law will allow the Agriculture Department, along with other state agencies, to approve more dispensaries than 14 — with the Executive Appropriations Committee being adequately informed.

GOP legislative leaders working on the new compromise didn’t want too many dispensaries licensed, since there may not be enough demand for the drug to keep outlying dispensaries financially viable.

The new bill also says that a judge, if you are under a court order, can’t make an ill patient stop taking his or her medical marijuana, as part of a drug testing program.

In addition, the University of Utah and Utah State University can apply, and be licensed, to grow their own cannabis or buy it legally to conduct authorized research on the drug.

A city, under the agreement, can’t pick out a cannabis grow/dispensary under a special zoning ordinance to keep the drug provider out.

Like alcohol sales currently, medical marijuana growth and dispensaries can’t be close to churches, schools, parks, and other protected areas.

In short, legislative leaders said, it is anticipated that come March 1 there will be enough medical marijuana for the initial numbers of doctor-prescribed ill folks to take advantage of.

But Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the sponsors of the new compromise bill, said down the road, even in the 2020 general session, there may be other issues concerning medical marijuana that need to be adjusted.

And so Utah’s medical marijuana program is modified now, and may well be again, as needed.