Utah counties may no longer be required to dispense medical cannabis

SALT LAKE CITY — Local health departments may no longer be relied upon to dispense medical cannabis, according to the association that represents them.

“As local health departments we have been involved in this conversation over the last year looking at multiple options in partnership with the legislature and Utah Association of Counties. At this time, as you may be aware, it does not look like local health departments will be used as the distribution point for medical cannabis,” Jill Parker, the director of the Utah Association of Local Health Departments, said in an email Tuesday.

The announcement comes after reporting by FOX 13 that Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings had both advised their respective counties against participating in a state-run program. In separate interviews, the county attorneys said they had longstanding concerns about federal drug laws and the potential for prosecution of county employees for de facto drug dealing.

Gill said he had shared his concerns with Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and was told a possible solution could remove counties from medical cannabis dispensing.

In a statement Tuesday evening, the Utah Department of Health did not say if county health departments would no longer be required to dispense cannabis under state law. It did say it has been aware of issues for months now.

“We are aware of the concerns some local health departments and county attorneys have regarding their role as medical cannabis distribution points,” the agency said. “We are committed to working with the counties, State Legislature, and Governor’s Office to find solutions that will ensure patients statewide have access to medical cannabis within the timeline set out in the Medical Cannabis Act.”

Voters approved Proposition 2 last year, only to see it replaced with a bill crafted as a compromise between lawmakers and initiative supporters and opponents, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The replacement bill created a state-run system where county health departments would be tasked with handing out medical cannabis, in addition to some privately-run dispensaries.

But county attorneys have apparently been uneasy with the idea. Gill told FOX 13 he raised concerns early on when the legislature replaced Prop. 2. Rawlings acknowledged the odds were slim federal prosecutors would go after Utah, but he could not protect his workers if they did. He also worried they would forfeit millions in federal grants for health programs.

Sen. Vickers told FOX 13 in a statement on Monday he was aware of the concerns and working on solutions. Medical cannabis advocates have said one default under the law would be adding more privately-run dispensaries.

The Epilepsy Association of Utah and Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) sued the state over the Prop. 2 replacement, making basically the same arguments as the county attorneys.

“We are relieved to hear the counties have seen the light regarding this complicated, and costly method of dispensing cannabis,” said Doug Rice, the president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah. “We understand existing law allows for an expansion of the private dispensary system. That’s a start.”

Rice said he and TRUCE have been speaking with lawmakers to make changes to the law. Such changes could come soon. The state’s program is due to be up and running by April 2020.

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