The 17-12 vote on the second substitute of SB73, sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, came despite opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah Medical Association and law enforcement groups.
"I really did not expect [the passage]. I really didn't think we'd get these votes today," said Christine Stenquist, co-founder and president of the group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education.
Stenquist and other advocates who had threatened to launch an initiative to let voters decide in November whether to legalize medical marijuana acknowledged the initiative may be difficult to pull off because there may not be enough time to gather the 101,700 signatures needed to get on the ballot this year.
And if a ballot initiative effort comes up short this year, the law would prevent advocates from bringing it back until 2018.
"The idea was always to handle it legislatively so we can get medicine into patients' hands as soon as possible," said Stenquist.
Opponents of SB73 warned that marijuana use has consequences like addiction, crime and increased use by youths.
"I look back over 50 years of what I've seen with this product and I am not impressed," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who said he had friends who returned from the Vietnam War with addictions to marijuana and has seen inmates in prison on narcotics charges who had used the drug. "I'm actually afraid of this."
And Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, said helping a small number who might benefit from marijuana is not worth jeopardizing the health of many more who fall victim to "the evils of marijuana in their lives."
Madsen made a series of concessions and revisions to his bill in the past week to address concerns voiced by the LDS Church and his colleagues. He removed language that would have allowed patients to have access to the raw flower or bud of the marijuana plant because of fears patients would smoke it.
He added language to require the products to be clearly labeled and sealed in child-proof containers, added a buffer around schools and churches where marijuana dispensaries and grow facilities could not be located, and removed language that would prevent cities from blocking the facilities through zoning ordinances.
But he said the bill would still help patients get access to the drug they need and included all of the best practices of 23 states and Washington, D.C., that have adopted medical-marijuana programs.
"I hope we will act today not out of fear, but out of hope and out of compassion and out of a belief that people do have a right to make decisions about their own care and government doesn't always get it right," Madsen said.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, the House sponsor of the bill, said he doesn't know yet how receptive that chamber will be to the measure, but he will begin making the case for the bill.
"It's going to be back to the education process. … Now we can start working with my colleagues and see where they're at," Froerer said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he knows representatives are aware of the bill and its content.