SALT LAKE CITY — House and Senate Republicans appear to be on board with a proposed compromise bill for dispensing medical marijuana in Utah regardless of whether the ballot initiative passes next month.
But those who support Proposition 2 say lawmakers are putting on a show and patients would never get medical cannabis under the proposal.
Both GOP caucuses met behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss the bill that could be considered in a special legislative session in November after the Nov. 6 election.
"I think it's important even by transparency for voters to know there is an agreement on policy here, and now we’re just talking how. I don’t think prior to this agreement that could have been said," House Speaker Greg Hughes, who helped broker the deal among initiative proponents and opponents, said.
The Draper Republican, who isn't seek re-election to the House, said lawmakers will move forward with "this good public policy" whether Proposition 2 passes or fails. He said the legislation is not an attempt to dismiss the ballot initiative.
"Our body is very, very supportive," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said after a closed caucus meeting of Senate Republicans. "I'm not concerned about getting the votes here in the Senate."
There were no negative comments about the compromise made in the caucus meeting, he said, although a few senators mentioned that they wished they'd been kept better informed during the negotiations.
Several key players in the sometimes bitter battle over medical marijuana reached a compromise in private meetings earlier this month that they hope to get passed into law. The proposal changes provisions in Proposition 2 over how medical marijuana can be ingested, where and how it would be sold, and what conditions qualify for a medical cannabis card.
Hughes and Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, a staunch proponent of medical marijuana, presented the 4,000-line draft legislation to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which heard public comment but took no action Wednesday.
Former Republican state Sen. Steve Urquhart asked lawmakers if they wanted a real legislative process or an "orchestrated show intended to mess with an upcoming election." He said if lawmakers' goal is to get medical marijuana to patients, they're on their way to making a "big mistake."
Utah will never get medical marijuana because there are two "poison pills" in the bill, he said, citing the pharmacy requirement and the "active role" of the state in breaking federal law.
"Do we want process or do we want a circus?" Urquhart said, adding lawmakers are doing it right if this is the start of a legislative process. "But this was announced to the public like this was a done deal, like this was completely baked."
Christine Stenquist, the founder of the patient group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, said she was left out of the negotiations. She said lawmakers have created a bill in "fear" and that it is designed to fail.
"My concern is that this is political theater," she told the committee. "You guys have introduced a compromise bill that is not finished and is not ready for the public, and you have told the entire state that you've got this and I'm concerned that you don't have this."
After the meeting, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said House and Senate Democrats favor Proposition 2, and worry that if it fails the Republican-controlled Legislature would be less likely to advance a medical marijuana bill.
King said he "kind of" trusts Hughes' promise to consider the legislation regardless of the outcome of the ballot initiative.
"It's not black and white," he said. "I think if you see Prop. 2 voted down, there'll be a lot more hesitation, there'll be a lot more reservation, so I think we need to see Prop. 2 voted up."
Hughes said the bill isn't a "porcelain doll" and could change before it reaches the House and Senate floors for a vote.
"I don't want the impression to be that this is already decided," he said.
Besides Wednesday's committee meeting on the compromise legislation, Hughes and Niederhauser said there could be another hearing before the November special session.
"We're working on that. We don't know what the logistics are, but we want to have people to be able to weigh in on it," the Senate president said.
A recent Deseret News poll showed 64 percent of likely Utah voters support Proposition 2. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they were against it.
Here's the breakdown:
- 43 percent strongly support Proposition 2
- 21 percent somewhat support Proposition 2
- 12 percent somewhat oppose Proposition 2
- 21 percent strongly oppose Proposition 2
- 3 percent were not sure
The poll questioned 1,087 likely Utah voters from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.97 percentage points.
Niederhauser, who is not seeking re-election to the Senate, said seeing the legislation come together has been a highlight of his time in leadership, especially since he didn't give it a lot of hope initially.
"I think it's a miracle that we got to where we are," he said. "I'm excited that we're going to have a policy here that's going to get medical cannabis (backers) the thing that they need and yet we're going to keep the guardrails as strong as possible."
Those involved in the talks included Hughes, Niederhauser, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Libertas Institute, the Utah Medical Association, the Utah Patients Coalition and the governor's office.
After the compromised was announced, the Utah Patients Coalition said it would no longer buy media ads promoting Proposition 2, though it still favors the measure passing. On the other side of the issue, the church and the medical association said they would do the same and not actively fight for its defeat, despite remaining opposed to it.
The legislative proposal limits the forms in which a person can use medical marijuana to a tablet, capsule, concentrated oil, liquid suspension, topical substance, skin patch, sublingual pill, chewable or dissolvable cube, or unprocessed marijuana flower broken up into a blister pack in which each blister, or pocket, does not exceed 1 gram.
Unlike Proposition 2, the bill would not allow someone to grow their own plants for personal use. Baked goods such as brownies or cookies would not be permitted.
Also, marijuana sellers would be known as pharmacies rather than dispensaries, and a licensed pharmacist would be required to work at the facility. A single state-owned central pharmacy would be established and medical marijuana could be picked up at local health departments. The bill allows five pharmacies statewide, unless unforeseen demand arises.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche