Utah legislature ends state-run medical cannabis distribution system in special session vote

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah State Legislature voted to end a state-run medical marijuana distribution system in a special session Monday night.

The Senate voted unanimously to approve it. The House did as well.

"This goes a long way toward honoring that promise" of medical cannabis for patients, said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, one of the bill's co-sponsors.

Lawmakers compromised on a bill that allowed for 14 privately-run dispensaries and more if the Utah Department of Health determines it's needed "based on market necessity."

The end of the state-run medical cannabis dispensaries follows reporting by FOX 13 on the Davis and Salt Lake County attorneys who objected to their local health departments handing out marijuana, out of fear they would be prosecuted by the feds for drug dealing. The governor disagreed with that assessment, but lawmakers ultimately decided to abandon it.

"I think what we need to be talking about is what’s the process to ensure we have an adequate number of dispensaries. We’re having that conversation," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told FOX 13 in an interview Monday.

Some medical cannabis advocates worry that it is still not enough to meet demand.

"I think it’s a positive step. I don’t think we’re there yet," said Desiree Hennessy, the director of the Utah Patients Coalition, which sponsored Proposition 2. "I think there’s still different opinions on each side of the aisle but the good news is we’re working together now."

Voters approved Proposition 2, which legalized medical cannabis, only to see the legislature replace it with their own bill created out of negotiations between medical cannabis supporters and opponents. But the law has faced problems as the state races to meet a March 2020 deadline to get a working program in place.

Christine Stenquist, the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, said she did not believe the latest number of privately-run pharmacies would be enough to meet patient demand.

"It’s just frustrating to me we keep doing this and we’re going to be doing it very slowly, rolling out very slowly," she told FOX 13. "Which means our patients still aren't getting what they need. They’re still left finding stuff on the illegal market."

Lawmakers warned that they would be addressing medical cannabis repeatedly in the coming years as the state works to get its program up and running.

"This is kind of a natural progression of this type of law," Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said. "As you have with any kind of piece of legislation that deals with this."

Medical marijuana opponents were unhappy with the votes. Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, told FOX 13 she wanted to see the legislature deal with vaping of marijuana. She also accused lawmakers of going back on their word when the compromise was crafted.

"They expect to keep going and going until they get back to Prop. 2 and not even fix these serious problems like children vaping," she said.

The legislature also voted to allow grocery and convenience stores to "pre-stage" stronger beer in grocery and convenience stores ahead of a November 1 sell date. Major beer makers have abandoned 3.2 beer in favor of stronger brews, forcing Utah to dump it as well.

The legislature also agreed to fund $1 million for the 2020 Census and $1.5 million in a settlement with former Utah Attorney General John Swallow, who was acquitted of corruption-related charges.

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