SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature passed changes to the state’s medical marijuana bill that will allow for 14 pharmacies — and more in the future — and increase the number of growers.
Tensions had simmered over the number of pharmacies the state will allow as legislators prepared for the vote. Some were advocating for the state to allow an unlimited number of pharmacies, while others wanted to limit the number to no more than 12.
“Why should we determine and set a statute on how many specific numbers there should be?” questioned House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, speaking to KSL. “Every one of us is just throwing a dart at a dart board when we try to pick a number.”
He said the numbers should be based off market demands.
“It’s certainly been a big issue that’s been raised,” Schultz said. However, “I think there’s broad consensus around ‘We need to get this figured out.’ So I don’t think it’ll unravel anything.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, wanted to limit the number of pharmacies.
“Originally there were supposed to be seven plus the central fill. (Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City) has proposed going from seven to 12, and now some people want more than that,” Thurston said.
“My concern is mostly about creating a number and a distribution that’s sustainable, because the last thing we want is to issue a bunch of permits, and everybody opens up and invests a bunch of money. And then within three months, they’re all closing their doors,” he said.
A substitute bill, sponsored by Vickers, would require the state to issue 14 licenses to pharmacies and more if needed in the future. Under the proposal, the department could issue eight licenses to an initial group of pharmacies and later six licenses to a second group of pharmacies.
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 for 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.
State lawmakers have said they need to make “tweaks” to the law to make sure the program is up and running by the March 1 deadline. Some critics have expressed frustration at changes to the original ballot initiative, blaming the potential delay on those changes.
The proposed changes would remove a state central fill pharmacy and local health departments from dispensing medical cannabis. The changes would also allow for the creation of an online central portal run by the state that would track cannabis purchases.
TRUCE founder Christine Stenquist told House Democrats in their caucus meeting before the special session the substitute bill was better, but still raised concerns about the state’s involvement in the dispensing process, taking issue with the state-led patient portal in place of a state-run central fill station.
"Why does the state need to be in the middle of this in that capacity?” Stenquist said.
Stenquist said cannabis, which is still an illegal substance under federal law, is “decades” away from being ready for a pharmacy model.
"They (the state) still want their hands on this,” Stenquist said. “This is big government.”
Still, however, Stenquist told House Democrats it’s “extremely beneficial” to remove a state-controlled central fill station.
"I’m not advocating for a ‘no’ vote because we have to get rid of central fill,” Stenquist said.
Her concerns about the number of pharmacies remain, though, questioning whether cost of delivery from only 14 dispensaries from across the state would increase the cost of the product for patients.
"It’s a work in progress, I think,” House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City said, predicting future legislative sessions will be grappling with the medical marijuana law for years to come.
"Realistically, at some point, I think we’re going to end up saying this is as good as is going to get done in the special session,” King said.
The changes also remove a stipulation that those who live within a certain distance to a pharmacy could only receive 12-day supplies at a time. The proposed changes would allow everyone to receive standard 30-day supplies, regardless of their distance to a pharmacy — unless a doctor specifically recommends a partial fill.
To ensure availability to those who are homebound or live far from a pharmacy, the changes would allow for home delivery through registered medical cannabis pharmacy agents.
The proposed changes also clarify that regardless of municipality ordinances, pharmacies can use signage that includes the pharmacy’s name and hours of operation, and a green cross. Pharmacies can maintain websites that contain information about the establishment and employees but which do not advertise any products.
The changes would also require the health department to issue no more than 10 licenses to between five and eight growers.
This story will be updated.