SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Chiefs of Police Association told legislators Wednesday it has concerns over how feasible it will be for officers to quickly determine whether a person is lawfully or unlawfully carrying marijuana with them, in the event that a ballot initiative permitting its medical use passes.
"We recognize that for a law enforcement officer on the street, it could be difficult for them to distinguish between legal cannabis possession, purchase and cultivation, versus illegal," said Tom Ross, Bountiful police chief and president of the board of directors for the Utah Chiefs of Police Association. "We're not sure how the officer on the street is going to be able to easily make a determination."
The organization spoke Wednesday to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee about issues they believe may need addressing in implementing Utah's medical marijuana ballot initiative if voters pass it.
The Department of Health, Department of Public Safety, Department of Agriculture, and Utah Administrative Offices of the Courts also spoke to the committee to weigh in on challenges their agencies might face in implementing the initiative, prompting committee members to open a bill file specifically to address those concerns.
The initiative would allow patients with certain illnesses to obtain clearance for a medical card through their physician, allowing them to possess marijuana legally.
Ross, who was also speaking on behalf of the Utah Sheriff's Association, said enforcing laws against marijuana possession may also be complicated if the initiative passes because "individuals will be able to legally possess cannabis before the medical cards are even in place and ready to go."
Ross was referring to a portion of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act which states that until July 1, 2020, just a short time after medical cannabis cards would first be issued, "it is an affirmative defense to criminal charges ... that the individual would be eligible for a medical cannabis card, and that the individual's conduct would have been lawful" after that date with such a card.
"Looking at it from an officer-on-the-street perspective, how are they going to be able to recognize all the qualifying illnesses?" Ross said, talking of the conditions that can qualify a person for a doctor-approved medical marijuana card.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute — an organization tightly connected with the origins of initiative campaign and the Utah Patients Coalition, the campaign's largest in-state donor — spoke to the committee on behalf of the initiative's advocates and responded to concerns about implementation.
Boyack contends that the reason for the "affirmative defense is just to say, if you want to go to a judge and appeal your case" on medical grounds, "you will at least have the option of doing so."
He said it wouldn't be fair to patients not to preserve that legal defense while bureaucratic efforts to produce cards would be still catching up with Utahns' vote to protect medical use of marijuana.
Jacey Skinner, deputy court administrator for the Utah Administrative Offices of the Courts, told the committee that the affirmative defense portion of the initiative would likely lead to "hotbeds of discussion and lots of motions" in Utah courtrooms, but "those are things the courts are well accustomed to dealing with."
"The language itself doesn't present specific problems for the courts," Skinner added.
Boyack also said legal versus illegal possession of marijuana will be more easily identifiable for police officers thanks to the initiative mandating that lawfully purchased product be kept in a secure container with specified labeling and packaging requirements — including a trackable batch identification number.
Despite his counterarguments, Boyack said, he and other advocates are not trying to say provisions detailing how the initiative should be implemented should be left untouched by legislators after being passed by voters.
"(We are) more open than ever to say we recognize the legislature has an interest in making sure appropriate safeguards are in place," he said — assuming a good faith effort to ensure "the core of what the public has passed is being enacted."
Dr. Marc Babitz, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said the initiative would require that his agency build an electronic system keeping track of doctors' recommendations granting patients medical cannabis cards.
"We don't have that system. ... There's a whole new system required," Babitz told the committee.
Babitz said that and several other implementation tasks "would be very difficult on our budget and other responsibilities."
Babitz worried that "there's nothing in the initiative that helps us verify that dispensaries are complying with the guidelines that are listed."
Boyack disagreed with the characterization of a lack of enforcement ability regarding dispensaries. He said the initiative specifies "inspections can be conducted at any time."
Scott Ericson, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said there are currently multiple laws whose regulations conflict with that of the initiative, meaning such contradictions would need to be settled one way or another if the measure passes.
Ericson also said the initiative could, in fact, undo the effects of recent Utah laws enabling the sale of CBD oil at pharmacies and other places.
"The initiative language, from our understanding ... would require all cannabis products sold in the state to be sold in a dispensary," he said. "So the current language makes (CBD oil) available in many more places ... than the initiative would."
Boyack said he is of the view that "there is no conflict" between the initiative and Utah laws expanding CBD oil availability in the state.