SALT LAKE CITY — How does a state go about implementing a law demanded by its people but restricted by the federal government?
Running against the clock, that’s what Utah legislators are trying to figure out as they work to change the Medical Cannabis Act approved last year so that the program can be up and running by next March as promised. Meanwhile, advocates are becoming anxious and angry at hints of a possible delay.
“We have some urgency. We want to have medication in patients’ hands in March,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, co-sponsor of HB3001 that sets up Utah’s medical marijuana program.
“Facilitating where they can go (to get it), we’ve run into some challenges, and we’re trying to navigate that,” he said.
The Utah Legislature’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee met to discuss several tweaks to the law Monday, one week ahead of a special session called by Gov. Gary Herbert to deal with legal concerns brought up in the law as it stands.
Utah voters approved a ballot initiative last November legalizing doctor-approved marijuana treatment for certain health conditions. State lawmakers the next month replaced the measure with a law they say puts tighter controls on the production, distribution and use of the drug.
But this year, some counties expressed concern about possibly facing federal retribution by being involved in Utah’s marijuana distribution system. Both Salt Lake and Davis counties’ top attorneys advised their county health departments against dispensing medical marijuana once the network is up and running.
To legislators on the committee and a small crowd of people made up of medical cannabis supporters and opponents, Vickers presented several tweaks to the law. The changes would:
- Remove a central state dispensary and take local health departments out of the equation;
- Eliminate the state from any financial transactions;
- Increase the maximum number of private medical cannabis pharmacies from seven to 12 to compensate for local health departments not dispensing medical marijuana;
- Allow for the creation of home-delivery services to bring the products to rural areas;
- Implement a statewide, electronic patient portal with experts that patients can consult with for information about dosage, if needed;
- Ensure the law doesn’t treat patients who use medical marijuana differently than those who you opioids for medical reasons;
- Allow growers to cultivate plants both indoors and outdoors, rather than one or the other;
- Authorize the Utah Department of Food and Agriculture to license colleges to conduct medical cannabis research;
- Ensure pharmacies can use signage to advertise regardless of city prohibitions;
- Standardize all sale limits to a 30-day supply, eliminating the need for those who live within a certain, closer distance to pharmacies to only receive a 12-day supply.
Some legislators questioned why the state should limit the number of private pharmacies to 12, while others wondered whether 12 might be too many and could flood the market, causing some businesses to fail.
Richard Oborn, director for the Center of Medical Cannabis, responded that the pharmacies would have one year to open after they receive licenses, allowing them to open whenever in that year they choose based on product availability and consumer demand.
“Wouldn’t it be more prudent to actually have more sites with fewer patients at each?” Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, asked.
Vickers said there wouldn’t be enough customers in many areas of the state, such as Kanab and Panguitch, to keep the pharmacies in business. The language in the bill would require the state to give licenses to no less than 12 pharmacies. That number was determined based on population numbers and what other states have done, he said. But he suggested that seven should begin immediately, while the other five should stagger their openings.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out” “We know what the federal policy on medical marijuana is ... it’s a no tolerance policy.”
“I mean, how do you and how does (Drug Enforcement Administration) draw the line between, what’s something that the feds will ignore for purposes of enforcement ... and what it will not ignore and take some action to?” King asked.
The voter-passed Proposition 2 was “breaking the law,” he said, and “what we are talking about now is breaking the law.”
Vickers acknowledged that the bill “has nothing close to coming close to the law,” but said that based on conversations he’s had with members of the DEA, he believes they might “look more favorably” on states that try to allow people to use medical marijuana in “a more controlled medical fashion.” The agency wants to control the illegal market, and all the state can do is prevent the black market, according to Vickers.
Another topic of focus was difficulties growers are facing waiting for approval from cities to grow where they wish and get up and running, all before the deadline. Some of the locations require rezoning, a process that can take months. Lawmakers have been working with Utah League of Cities and Towns to come up with solutions, he said.
Vickers said the Legislature might consider a “preemption” that would allow the state to temporarily require cities to allow facilities to open.
So far, just one of the growers is almost ready to start production, said Andrew Rigby, director of Medical Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Programs for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
“It’s not a black or white situation, it is very much a situation in which these licensees have spent time developing relationships with the municipalities themselves and have reassurances and confidence that they are going through that process and they will get that final approval for the municipalities,” he said.
They are all in a “delayed” pattern to see what the next two or three months will look like, according to Rigby.
“The reality is we have a deadline of March 1st. That’s three months and a few weeks away. ... We don’t have a solution currently and we need a solution, or else we will miss that deadline,” Rigby said. The only other option is “pushing that deadline back,” he said.
No one’s to blame, he said, but “there’s just a lack of understanding as to how to proceed.”
“On a scale of one to 10, we’re all over the place,” Rigby said.
When the meeting opened for public comment, Pam Harrison, a licensed social worker from Davis County, said, “if we miss the March 1st deadline, people, their hair is already on fire, this is going to be extremely upsetting.
“But beyond that, we are putting people who are desperate, who are ready to give medical cannabis a try or are already trying it, a delay. ... And so anything that keeps us on track, I implore you to get that done,” she said.