In the final public hearing on Prop. 2 replacement bill, medical cannabis advocates blast ‘compromise’

SALT LAKE CITY -- In a hearing over a bill set to replace what voters approved, dozens spoke against the so-called "compromise" bill.

At a hearing that lasted several hours, public comment on the bill was overwhelmingly against it. Some raised concerns about physicians being the only ones who can recommend medical cannabis, others accused the legislature of usurping the will of the voters.

A packed room at a hearing on the medical cannabis "compromise" bill at the Utah State Legislature on Nov. 26, 2018. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Debra Jenson placed numerous prescription bottles on the witness stand to show the Health & Human Services Interim Committee what she endures now for her neurological condition. She said additional regulations add a burden to so many patients.

"For every extra mile you add for where we can pick up our meds, for every extra layer of red tape you add when we go visit our doctors, for every extra question, for every extra doctor visit we go to, you are adding to our agony," Jenson said. "You are adding stress to our lives, which adds to our pain. You are shortening our lives."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, convened opponents and sponsors of Proposition 2 for negotiations on a "compromise" as it became apparent the medical cannabis initiative was going before voters and was polling to pass. Chief opponents included the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Utah Patients Coalition, which sponsored Prop. 2, was involved in the talks with the Libertas Institute.

In an interview with FOX 13 on Monday, Speaker Hughes insisted the compromise is a good one.

"This isn’t an effort to undermine the will of the people," he said. "This is actually an initiative process where what the initiative was seeing to do was agreed upon, and we have been working ever since to make sure it has that structurally, even more importantly, political strength to carry the day and actually provide patient access."

Over the course of many months, the bill has evolved as negotiations continue. Gone is the "grow your own" provision of Prop. 2. A limited number of privately-run dispensaries have been added to the state's "central fill" model, where the state grows and dispenses the cannabis (similar to the DABC model of control). The bill would be silent on housing protections for renters. Only physicians can recommend cannabis, not nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

Christine Stenquist, the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), which has advocated for medical cannabis for years on Utah's Capitol Hill, said there are still too many problems with it.

"The biggest concerns we have are the central fill," she said. "We have concern about the limit of what physicians can recommend and who they can recommend to."

She also warned that Utah was playing with fire with the federal government when it comes to state-run dispensaries. TRUCE has threatened a lawsuit against the state over the "compromise" legislation, as well as over the LDS Church's involvement in the negotiations.

"I see nothing but roadblocks in this bill and they pitched it as the great savior of patients and it’s just not," Stenquist told FOX 13.

Public comment included complaints about how medicine would be dispensed and distributed and in what forms. Speaker Hughes said the bill would provide medical cannabis for patients in need.

"Am I surprised that people want to fight? Nah. It’s what’s happening in politics," he told FOX 13. "This is actually a very good thing and this is going to do what it was intended all along with Prop. 2, it is going to ensure patient access and it’s going to do it in a way that’s politically stronger or less susceptible to people trying to attack it."

Others -- including social conservative groups -- praised the bill for providing relief for patients, but including safeguards for public safety and children.

Monday's hearing was the final public hearing ahead of a special session on Dec. 3, where lawmakers will vote on the replacement bill. That happens two days after Prop. 2 goes into effect.

But Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, announced plans for a substitute bill.

"What the people asked for which is to keep Prop. 2 whole to not make any substantive changes," she told reporters on Monday night.

Rep. Chavez-Houck said she would make only technical changes, but acknowledged her bill was a long shot. To give it fuel, she told reporters, she was encouraging people to keep pressuring lawmakers to implement Prop. 2 only.

"Call your lawmakers," she said.