Utah would become the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana under a pair of bills that would set up a state-run industry for people with terminal illness to access the federally illegal cannabis plant as a way to treat their symptoms.
A pair of bills would set up a framework where physicians or nurses recommend cannabis for patients and contractors for the state produce it. The bills would allow for a state-run dispensary to distribute only to people with a terminal illness, and would cap the number of patients.
“Other states have gone vastly further down the road than we have,” said Rep. Brad Daw, the Orem Republican sponsoring HB195 and HB197, which a House committee voted Wednesday to send to the full House for consideration. “This is ... a very small toe in the water.”
The industry that would be set up by the two bills would be far more limited and centralized than a medical marijuana ballot initiative now in the signature-gathering stage.
Some medical marijuana advocates are hoping voters will approve the ballot measure in November that would allow for a private-market industry to grow and provide cannabis to a much larger group of patients. They believe the proposed bills are too narrow and restrictive.
HB197 would allow for a state-run dispensary for marijuana that under HB195 could be grown and processed into tablets, capsules, concentrated oils, liquids and other approved, non-smokable forms.
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food would contract with a private grower who would provide marijuana for the department. The agency would then set rules for a company hoping to process marijuana into an approved medicinal form.
The agency could sell the marijuana products to medical and academic researchers as well as terminally ill patients with a nurse or doctor’s recommendation.
Those nurses couldn’t recommend the product for more than 15 patients under HB195, a provision that Rep. Ed Redd, a Republican and physician from Logan, said may be too restrictive.
Redd, along with the two other physicians on the committee, supported the measures nonetheless. Some of Redd’s patients have used marijuana to treat side effects from cancer treatment.
“They’ve benefited quite a bit from it during that time of life,” Redd said shortly before voting to advance the bills. “To me that’s a really interesting concept.”
Rep. Ray Ward, a Bountiful Republican and physician, said he supported the bills because of the known benefits for certain patients. He would also support a wider list of patients legally accessing cannabis products for treatment. But given that the bill allowed terminally ill people to possess cannabis, it was “easy” for him to support it, he said.
None of the committee members mentioned the elephant in the room: a group has collected more than 100,000 signatures in its effort to put more sweeping legalization of medical marijuana on the November ballot. The initiative has strong support from voters, according to polls.
“One of the biggest problems with that bill [in the Legislature] is it establishes a monopoly, which means high prices,” said Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian Libertas Institute. “Once the initiative passes, there is zero need for either of these two bills. We will have plenty of people growing it, and we will have far more people than just terminal patients who are accessing it.”
The initiative would allow 15 businesses that grow and dispense medical marijuana through Jan. 1, 2022, when the state would study the market and determine whether more companies are needed to supply the market. The state would set up rules for transporting the product.
The initiative also would require marijuana to be tested before it’s sold to patients. The bill says the Department of Agriculture and Food would create various rules regarding cultivation but doesn’t specifically include provisions on testing.
The list of people with a qualifying illness allowing them to possess marijuana under the ballot initiative includes those with terminal illnesses such as cancer and HIV. It includes people with Crohn’s disease and other gastrointestinal disorders, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, chronic pain and other conditions.
Daw said before the hearing that it’s not clear what would happen if the House and Senate pass the bills and voters approve the initiative in November, though he said lawsuits could be possible. The Legislature could change the law once it takes effect, according to Justin Arriola, a board member for the medical marijuana advocacy nonprofit TRUCE.
“There’s enough in there already that we’re concerned about,” Arriola said of the bills before the Legislature. “I believe in the free market. They basically want to have that control. And we want to open it up to free competition.”