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SALT LAKE CITY — By the thinnest of margins, the state House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would instruct the Department of Agriculture to oversee the cultivation and processing of full-strength cannabis in Utah.
HB197 passed with 38 votes, the fewest a measure can receive in that body and still pass. Thirty-two representatives voted against the so-called cannabis cultivation bill, and four were absent.
Several representatives switched sides since last week's vote, when it failed to pass after receiving 36 votes. The bill now advances to the Senate.
If the bill becomes law, the Department of Agriculture will coordinate with a third party to make sure full-strength cannabis is grown directly in Utah. It would also establish a state dispensary for the drug by July 1, 2019. The state could contract with a courier to securely transport full-strength medicinal cannabis to buyers.
Sponsor Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, has said HB197 is a critical way to complement legislation passed last year allowing patients to use certain cannabis products as part of an approved study, in addition to a bill he is pursuing this year giving terminally ill patients the right to use such products.
For those patients, HB197 will promote increased access, Daw said, because it "allows for a supply that physicians can look at and say, 'OK, I trust that supply, (and) I am now comfortable with … being able to recommend that because I know that it will be safe, that it will be reliable, that what's on the label will be what's in the bottle.'"
"If we believe 'right to try' is the right policy, if we believe allowing research is the right policy, then I hope you'll join me in allowing our state to produce the medicine that we need in order to forward those policies," Daw said.
The measure in recent weeks has received the endorsement of the Department of Agriculture and the conservative think tank Sutherland Institute, while the Utah Medical Association told lawmakers last month that it supports the ideas in the bill.
However, some law enforcement officials have spoken in opposition to HB197, saying it subverts federal law.
Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, echoed those concerns Tuesday before voting no on the bill, saying "we expect to follow the order of law and with the passage of this we would be in noncompliance with federal law."
Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, has also spoken out against HB197.
Christine Stenquist, founder and president of TRUCE, said Tuesday she is disappointed that the bill passed, saying Daw is a lawmaker "who's trying to undermine what the initiative is doing" through bills intended to pacify rather than make significant progress on medical cannabis access.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the Senate GOP caucus probably won't consider the House bills for another week or so. But Niederhauser said he believes the legislation "comports with what we've all been working on together."
DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition medical cannabis ballot initiative campaign, told the Deseret News that "the Legislature continues to undermine its own opposition to the ballot initiative, (in) that it's going against federal law to enact its own state laws."
The Utah House Democratic Caucus released a statement Tuesday saying that most of its members are opposed to HB197 and "instead support the pending statewide medical marijuana ballot initiative over these Republican alternative measures." Rep. Marie Poulson and Rep. Susan Duckworth, both of Salt Lake City, were the only Democrats to vote in favor of the bill.
The nine legislators who switched their vote to yes, or supported it after being absent, were all Republicans.
Rep. Kay Christofferson said Daw helped assauge his concerns about the mechanics of the bill as related to federal regulations if they were to change.
"My support of this comes from the fact that it's a way we can do what we (would) want the federal government to do, and that is control the way the product is processed and distributed," Christofferson said on the House floor.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, withdrew his support, saying "over the weekend and yesterday, I have received additional information that makes me change my mind."
"I'm suspicious and concerned that what this bill really is, is an attempt to undermine the ability of the people of Utah to weigh in on this in the form of the initiative that these individuals are trying to get on the ballot for November."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche