Lawmakers' first glimpse of draft medical marijuana compromise brings questions

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, speaks with Enedina Stanger, who left Utah for Colorado three-years ago to seek medical marijuana treatment for her severe chronic pain from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Supporters and opponents of UtahÕs medical marijuana initiative joined with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at the Utah Capitol to announce a Òshared visionÓ for cannabis policy.

Despite the reportedly painstaking negotiations that went into crafting a medical cannabis accord, House Speaker Greg Hughes assures Utah lawmakers that an amendment or two won’t shatter it.

The bill “is not a porcelain doll. It is not a Cinderella slipper that you can’t touch,” Hughes told lawmakers Wednesday.

Sure enough, after the House leader finished introducing the drafted Utah Medical Cannabis Act, the questions began.

Lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Interim Committee wondered why the bill counts autism as a qualifying condition for receiving medical cannabis. What would stop the so-called “cannabis pharmacies” from competing to offer the most potent product? And why are physician assistants and nurse practitioners disqualified from recommending medical cannabis to a patient?

Rep. Brad Daw, the committee chairman, said legislators will have more opportunities to dissect the bill during the November special session on medical marijuana. But he said Wednesday’s meeting gave them a jumpstart.

"Now, the legislators can begin to tear through it, pick it apart and have their amendments ready to go," Daw, R-Orem, said in a phone interview after the meeting.

Overall, Daw said, lawmakers on his committee seem to like the legislation, unveiled by a group of Utah power brokers earlier this month as an alternative to Proposition 2.

Even Sen. Allen Christensen declared during the meeting that he would likely vote for the bill, Daw noted.

“He’s been one who’s been most adamantly opposed to anything cannabis. And if he says he’s voting for it, my guess is we’ve captured the vast majority of the Legislature,” Daw said.

Prop 2, on the other hand, has even encountered resistance from people who support medical cannabis in theory, Hughes said. In an attempt to find common ground, Hughes said he began meeting with medical marijuana advocates and a lobbyist with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and eventually, the compromise legislation was born.

Gov. Gary Herbert presented the proposal during a news conference earlier this month and promised to call a special session whether or not Prop 2 succeeds on the Nov. 6 ballot.

However, some marijuana advocates aren’t so convinced the special session – expected to fall on Nov. 14 – will be a win for Utah patients.

Christine Stenquist, president of TRUCE Utah, said the legislation is filled with “poison pills” that will ensure its failure. “You guys have introduced a compromise bill that is not finished,” she said. “You’ve told the entire state that you’ve got this, and I’m concerned that you don’t have this.”

While other advocates have backed off their campaigns, Stenquist has continued to push for passage of Prop 2, which she believes is a better bet for establishing a medical cannabis program.

She also expressed frustration that her group was not part of designing the consensus bill with Hughes and members of the Utah Patients Coalition.

A Patients Coalition leader, Connor Boyack, sat at Hughes' side Wednesday to field questions about the bill.

Boyack explained to lawmakers that the proposed list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis was based on scientific research, marijuana programs in other states and anecdotal evidence from patients. By passing the bill, Utah would not be sanctioning cannabis treatment for any particular ailment, he and Hughes said.

Answering Christensen’s concern that cannabis pharmacies would tout their products from billboards, Boyack noted that the legislation specifically bars businesses from advertising. And the potency of the product is controlled, with doctors and pharmacists setting the dosages, he added.

Boyack also reviewed some of the most significant differences between the ballot initiative he helped spearhead and the legislation that will come before lawmakers next month.

Critics of Prop 2 warned the initiative would allow medical marijuana dispensaries stocked with gummies, brownies and suckers that would appeal to Utah’s youth, with untrained workers behind the counter selling the products. The system would give the marijuana industry a foothold in Utah and lead the state toward complete legalization of recreational cannabis, they said.

To allay these concerns, Boyack said the Utah Medical Cannabis Act rebrands dispensaries as “cannabis pharmacies,” where licensed pharmacists would be on hand at all times to advise patients. Medical cannabis also would be dispensed through a state-run pharmacy that would ship orders for patients to pick up at their local health department.

Gone are most of the edibles, although gummies are still permitted if they’re cube-shaped. Unprocessed cannabis flowers must be sold in a blister-pack to control the dosage delivered to the patient, he explained.

Unlike Prop 2, the legislation would not allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to recommend medical cannabis for patients, Boyack said, and doctors would have to complete four hours of specialized training before they’d be qualified to do so.