SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House members appear willing to let terminally ill patients use medical marijuana, but they're apparently reluctant to involve the state in cultivating the plant and dispensing the drug.
Two bills considered Friday that would do those things went too far for some lawmakers but not far enough for others.
The House voted 40-26 in favor of HB195 to legalize the use of certain types of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill patients. It would permit a doctor — advanced practice registered nurses were stripped from the current version — to recommend cannabis for a patient with six months or less to live.
But legislators then rejected a companion measure, HB197, that allows the Utah Department of Agriculture to contract with a third party to oversee the growing and processing of full-strength cannabis in the state. The bill would also create a designated state dispensary to sell cannabis products to organizations.
The vote was 36-34, but the bill failed because a constitutional majority of 38 is needed to pass. Four members were absent, and one resigned earlier this week.
"There was a lot more angst about the cultivation than I thought," Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said after the vote. He is sponsoring both bills.
Daw immediately went to work on his colleagues and intends to bring HB197 back Monday.
"I've got at least three flips already," he said.
Both measures need to pass because the so-called right-to-try bill is meaningless without the means to provide cannabis, he said. Daw said he couldn't explain why some lawmakers voted for one but not the other.
"You have a group of people who don't want to move ahead at all, (and) you have another group of people that want to go much, much further than we're going along the spectrum, so trying to find that sweet spot, that's a challenge," he said.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, voted against the bills because he said it would violate federal law to grow and dispense cannabis in Utah.
"I cannot in good conscience simply ignore the law," he said. "Ignoring the law leads to anarchy. I'm not saying the sky is going to fall. It’s a drip, drip, drip."
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, argued the state needs to do what the federal government should have done a long time ago. He said he's not into seeing people suffer when they could be helped by "a plant that you can grow in your backyard."
"We're not Colorado, we're not California, we're not Oregon. Do you see any action against them?" he said.
Some Democrats voted against the proposals because they said they don't go far enough.
Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, said medicinal cannabis needs to be made available to as many people as possible.
"To limit it, seems like were not doing enough," she said.
Daw called it small step forward that would allow the state to see how effective medical marijuana can be.
Christine Stenquist, president of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, watched the votes from the House gallery.
"It just took the wheels off the car," she said after watching HB197 go down, something she wasn't sad to see.
"This still means the ballot initiative is the most comprehensive bill out there for patients. So today, on some small scale, Utah patients win. Unfortunately, we have to wait until November," she said.
The initiative would allow use of several types of medical marijuana products for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and autism. It would not legalize smoking the drug or using it in public.
Doug Rice, vice president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah, watched debate on the bills from the gallery of the House chambers with his daughter, Ashley, who has epilepsy.
Rice, of West Jordan, said without medicinal cannabis, Ashley has upward of two dozen seizures a day. When she uses cannabis, she has about three to five seizures a day, he said.
Rice said he believes Daw's proposals don't go far enough.
“They’re really, really small steps,” he said. “There’s some positive things to (the bills), but the negatives in these bills outweigh the positives.”
Contributing: Jacob Wiegand