The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said it would like to see a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana fail — but at the same time has no qualms with needy patients using cannabis under the right program. And, in fact, it wants to see one put in place by the end of the year.
So representatives from the church, the Utah Medical Association and a pro-cannabis group met for seven hours in House Speaker Greg Hughes’ office Monday, trying to hammer out details of a plan that could bridge that divide.
After the meeting, the parties were tight-lipped. Some even told my colleague Benjamin Wood and a reporter for another news outlet that there was no draft bill being discussed.
In fact, there was a draft bill and I have a copy of it. This proposal envisions a significantly different medical marijuana program than what is contained in Proposition 2, which is now before voters.
The 96-page document, labeled “Working Draft — For Discussion Purposes Only,” also addresses many of the concerns that church officials and the medical association have repeatedly expressed about the consequences of Prop 2, which both have characterized as a step down the path toward legalizing recreational marijuana.
The aim of the parties is to find some sort of compromise that could establish a medical marijuana program if the ballot initiative goes down (its approval has steadily hovered above 60 percent) or supplant the problematic language in the initiative during a quickly called special legislative session should it pass.
Greg Hartley, the speaker’s chief of staff, said the issue is changing and the draft bill is “nowhere near where the conversations are right now.”
“Like all big issues we face, the speaker has had several meetings on this topic with people on opposing sides. What he has heard through those conversations is that, while there are differing opinions on certain aspects, there is more agreement than disagreement,” Hartley said. “So he’s meeting together with people from various sides of the issue and testing every premise to see if they can find common ground.”
Generally speaking, the draft tracks fairly closely with the language and structure of the initiative, with some key differences.
Gone, as you might expect, is the initiative’s “grow-your-own” provision, which would have allowed individuals to grow plants if there are no licensed dispensaries within 100 miles.
Initiative proponents saw it as an insurance policy to prevent the state from refusing to license dispensaries or dragging its feet. Opponents, including the church, saw it as a free-for-all that would legalize homegrown marijuana.
As with the original initiative, the draft bill requires child-resistant packaging and clear labeling, and mandates that there be rigorous tracking of every plant — from the time they are 8 inches tall until the time they are processed and sold.
It also requires a physical evaluation by a medical professional before a person could get a cannabis card, prohibits dispensaries from giving out free products, and it restores terminally ill patients to the list of those eligible to try medical marijuana, which are good additions.
But there are significant flaws in the measure.
For example, throughout the bill, cannabis “dispensaries” are replaced with cannabis “pharmacies” — specific terminology church leaders used (they actually said “licensed pharmacies”) when detailing the conditions under which the church could support a medical marijuana program.
The bill only defines these pharmacies as establishments that intend to sell medical cannabis.
But to a pharmacist, a pharmacy means something specific, and that makes this problematic. Pharmacies are licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, in the same class as heroin. Pharmacists can’t sell Schedule I drugs. As such, it could jeopardize the pharmacists’ licenses and their livelihood.
In 2015, Louisiana enacted a medical marijuana law that requires the product to be dispensed through pharmacies. But the rules Louisiana implemented include a direct warning that state law cannot pre-empt federal law.
The pharmacies, the rule warns, “remain subject to the full force of federal law enforcement, including arrest and prosecution of criminal charges, the assessment of civil fines and forfeitures, as well as administrative consequences.”
The LDS Church had voiced concerns about language in the initiative that prohibits landlords from discriminating against those who hold a valid medical cannabis card. The draft bill recasts it, using the same language from the church-backed non-discrimination law passed in 2015 in relation to both housing and employment discrimination.
But, like the anti-discrimination law, the language specifically exempts religious institutions, like the LDS Church — a curious carve-out given that leaders have expressed an openness to patients having access to cannabis through a state-regulated program.
One glaring problem is that it makes it a Class B misdemeanor for anyone to provide instructions on how to use a medical marijuana product, a provision that would criminalize the type of guidance that we should encourage patients to receive.
And there’s a more nuanced change, cutting the amount of cannabis a patient can receive by half — from 2 ounces every 14 days to an ounce, an amount I am told may not address the needs of patients dealing with cancer or intractable pain.
It’s good that the church and the medical association are talking about solutions, and hopefully they are sincere in trying to find a workable model, not just kill the ballot initiative. A revised version of the bill is expected this week.
For now, what is missing from these high-level talks is input from the patients and the public. And there are significant flaws in the bill that have to be addressed.
Until they are, supporters of the ballot initiative need to maintain their focus on passing Proposition 2 in November, if for no other reason than it keeps pressure on all sides to be serious about coming up with a plan that would actually help alleviate the needless suffering of those patients in need.
Correction: Sept. 26, 10 a.m.: This column has been updated to reflect items that had previously been identified as additions to the draft bill that were actually already in the proposed medical marijuana ballot initiative.