Utah lawmakers are making more changes to the medical cannabis program, but may miss deadlines

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah lawmakers have unveiled a bill that makes big changes to the state's medical cannabis program.

But they also acknowledged it is possible they blow past a deadline to have a working system up and running by March 1, 2020.

It was brought up at the only hearing scheduled for the bill that will be considered at next week's special session of the Utah State Legislature. Lawmakers are considering a number of tweaks to the bill that replaced voter-approved Proposition 2. Among them:

  • Patients get increased dosages of cannabis from a 14-day supply to a 30-day supply.
  • Patients get a little more relief from prosecution for marijuana possession.
  • Patients will have to get a medical cannabis card that allows them to purchase cannabis from private dispensaries.
  • The state will create a portal to facilitate online requests for cannabis and it will allow for electronic payment processing between dispensaries and the patients.
  • The biggest change will be the state abandons its government-run dispensaries in favor of more privately-operated "pharmacies."

The state abandoning a "central fill" system came after the Davis and Salt Lake county attorneys told FOX 13 they were recommending against local health departments being tasked with handing out medical cannabis to patients. The attorneys were afraid that having county government workers acting as de facto drug dealers could open them up to federal prosecution.

"The decision has been made that’s probably more appropriate to abandon the central fill concept," Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said Monday. "That brings into play that we would increase the number of retail pharmacies. It would eliminate the risk to the local health department."

Right now, the bill calls for them to go from seven to 12 pharmacies, but FOX 13 is told discussions are under way to add even more by the time the bill comes up for a vote in special session on Monday.

"We have to get rid of central fill. We’ve known that since the day it was created," said Desiree Hennessy, the director of the Utah Patient's Coalition, which sponsored Prop. 2.

Marijuana opponents said what's proposed in the bill goes back on deals they struck in the bill that ultimately replaced Prop. 2. The Utah Eagle Forum's Gayle Ruzicka said her group and others agreed to back off their campaign against the citizen ballot initiative on the assurances of state control.

"Here we are today, changing what we all backed off for and why?" she asked.

Christine Stenquist, the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) said she believed the current version of the bill does not go far enough.

"Legislators have come a long way in the past few years, so we should give them credit for that," she said. "But their words aren’t matching up with their actions. We have a bill that’s just too convoluted."

Stenquist called for more distribution sites and a more robust home delivery system.

If lawmakers do pass a bill that removes the central fill and implements more private dispensaries, Stenquist said TRUCE would likely abandon that as an argument in their lawsuit against the state over the bill that replaced Prop. 2. The litigation still makes arguments over lawmakers replacing what voters approved.

Nate Kizerian, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, told FOX 13 he would not stop the lawsuit until he got: "full reinstatement of Proposition 2, like the Utah voters passed."

Lawmakers also raised concerns about the March 1, 2020 deadline. Drew Rigby, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's cannabis coordinator, raised concerns that some cities were moving too slowly to get ordinances in place for grow sites and dispensaries.

Sen. Vickers asked the Health & Human Services Interim Committee for guidance on whether to force changes at a state-level. The Utah League of Cities & Towns raised concerns about the state rolling over the top of local communities to make a medical cannabis program happen. House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, questioned if they could delay some aspects of a medical cannabis program.

Walter Plumb III, who funded a lot of the opposition to Prop. 2, told the committee the deadline "was not cast in stone."

"The date could easily be changed," he said.

"Do you realize what the public would say if we did not make the deadline we’ve established?" replied Sen. Alan Christensen, R-Ogden.

"Well, the only one that swung this is Salt Lake County, remember?" Plumb responded, noting the vote on Prop. 2.

Hennessy said she was not supportive of delaying the deadline.

"I think there could be more lawsuits, I think the industry people that are waiting are going to be angry," she said. "I don’t think moving the deadline is a good idea."

Sen. Christensen said he did not support delaying the deadline.

"I will recommit again to get that March deadline. It’s not carved in stone, but I feel like we have committed to get it done," he said. "We are going to do our very best to actually pull that one off."

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