On election day, Utah surprisingly passed Proposition 2, the Medical Marijuana Initiative, with nearly 53% of people voting in favor of the measure.
However, before residents even headed to the polls, a compromise bill to replace Prop 2 was already in the works. And during a special session of the state’s legislature on Monday, December 3, Utah lawmakers passed the bill with the Republican-controlled House voting 60 to 13 and the Senate sealing the deal with a decisive final tally of 22 to 4.
Governor Gary Herbert then signed the bill into law on the same day with the statement, “Utah now has the best-designed medical cannabis program in the country.”
Behind the Scenes of the Compromise Bill
Here at Medicine Man Technologies, we’ve certainly witnessed how contentious the push for progress can be, but Utah comes with a unique political landscape. Let’s take a look at how it all unfolded.
Prior to the election, representatives from the Utah Patients Coalition, Prop 2 sponsors, and Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute (a libertarian think tank and financial backer of the campaign) met with opponents of the legislation, including the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The goal was to gain early buy-off from these influential groups as well as support from the conservative-leaning Utah State Legislature and Governor Gary Herbert.
During weeks of private talks, both sides hashed out amendments that would alleviate the opposition’s concern that the original measure’s language left the door open to recreational use while still providing patients access to medical cannabis when Prop 2 passed. What made these talks so vital is that Utah is one of 11 states that allows unrestricted legislative alteration. Without a proactive move, it was possible that a simple majority vote by the legislature could have gutted the bill or completely repealed it.
Boyack stated, “Even though we wish it were so that they would leave it alone, the entire establishment we’ve known forever hates Proposition 2. You got the governor’s office, the House, the Senate, law enforcement, church groups and many others in that machine…We have to be frank about the situation that we’re in and recognize that notwithstanding Proposition 2 passing we don’t have the ability to forever defend it from being touched at all. That’s why these negotiations have been so important.”
Public Weighs in on Proposed Changes
After Utah voters approved the medical cannabis initiative, meetings continued between the groups as Governor Herbert announced that he intended to call a special session of the legislature so that a vote could be taken on the compromise bill. Prior to the session, a public hearing of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee gave proponents the opportunity to express their concerns that the new regulations would lead to higher costs and potentially force patients to return to the black market.
One attendee, Debra Jenson, who suffers from a neurological condition and had this to say, “For every extra mile you add for where we can pick up our meds, for every extra layer of red tape you add when we go visit our doctors, for every extra question, for every extra doctor visit we go to, you are adding to our agony. You are adding stress to our lives, which adds to our pain. You are shortening our lives.”
Despite such impassioned pleas, Greg Hughes, Utah House Speaker and sponsor of the replacement bill, stated, “This idea that something’s being sabotaged, that something’s being undermined, is just not the case. There is no gutting of any proposition, there is no undermining of any will of the people.”
How Changes Will Affect Patients
Now that the compromise bill has been passed, several changes will be implemented. One of the most controversial is reversing the ability of patients who do not live within 100 miles of a pharmacy to be allowed to grow cannabis at their homes.
However, as of December 1, patients have “affirmative defense” protection. In essence, if a patient with a qualifying condition and recommendation from a doctor were to purchase cannabis in a format now legal in the state, they could technically be arrested but prosecution would be very unlikely. Protection extends to illegal acquisition as well as legal purchases from bordering cities in Nevada and Colorado.
As for qualifying conditions listed in the original Prop 2 language, two were removed because they were perceived to be too open-ended. These include autoimmune diseases and gastrointestinal issues other than Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis which were originally specified. However, hospice was added and the definition of “pain” was expanded, allowing doctors to recommend medical cannabis instead of an opioid medication for patients who might be allergic or at risk of overdosing.
According to Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute, doctors will also be able to recommend medical cannabis if a patient has persistent pain that does not respond to over the counter drugs (ibuprofen or acetaminophen) or other interventions such as chiropractic care or acupuncture.
On the Friday prior to the special session, one of the final changes made to the compromise bill was to improve access for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly veterans. Previously, they were required to receive a diagnosis and recommendation from a doctorate-level psychiatrist or psychologist. Now, veterans can also go to doctorate-level clinical social workers or providers with the U.S. Veterans Health Administration.
Part of the framework for Utah’s medical cannabis system was also amended. And while a “state central fill pharmacy” will be created and send out products for patients to pick up at state health departments, there will still be opportunities for private companies. Boyack explained, “seven dispensaries are what are being called medical cannabis pharmacies – those are privately owned, all of the growers are privately owned and all the processors are privately owned. So the entire system, including seven dispensaries, is privately owned with the exception of one dispensary that will be state-owned.”
In addition, the number of grower licenses that will be issued was reduced from a maximum of 20 to just 15. Newly added caps for cultivation include 100,000 square feet for indoor operations and 4 acres if grown outdoors. As demand for medical cannabis grows down the road, these growers will be able to submit an annual request to expand their space by up to 20%.
Other changes to the original Prop 2 language include:
- Dispensaries will be called pharmacies and must have a full-time, licensed pharmacist on staff.
- Before a doctor or pharmacist is able to recommend or dispense medical cannabis, they must undergo four hours of ongoing education.
- To better serve smaller communities, the ability to recommend medical cannabis to patients has been expanded to include nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
- Landlords will be able to prohibit use or refuse to rent to patients that use medical cannabis.
- Cannabis flower will be permitted but must be weighed for uniformity and sold in blister packs.
- Edibles must be in a plain, cube-shaped gummy or lozenge form. Shapes appealing to children, such as gummy worms and bears, are banned.
- Patients under the age of 21 will first require a doctor’s recommendation then receive approval from a state-appointed “Compassionate Use Board” which will serve as a second opinion.
What’s Next for Medical Cannabis in Utah
Opposition to the compromise bill has now extended beyond a public backlash. Two Utah advocacy groups are now on the verge of filing lawsuits. Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) and the Epilepsy Association of Utah both allege that the Mormon church undermined Prop 2. In a letter sent by their attorney, Rocky Anderson, the church is accused of attempting to interfere with the passage of a voter-approved initiative.
While Medicine Man Technologies was certainly disappointed to see the will of the people ignored by the legislature, this is still progress for a notoriously conservative state. We will continue to watch as the new program is rolled out and hope that no further changes will be made.
If you wish to start your own legal enterprise in the U.S. or anywhere across the globe, please contact us for private consulting, as well as help with licensing, cultivating, dispensary operations and more.