Lawmakers, advocates continue to tweak medical cannabis bill in private talks

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Supporters and opponents of Utah’s medical marijuana initiative joined with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at the Utah Capitol to announce a “shared vision” for cannabis policy.

Utah voters have spent the past several weeks digesting the new, 126-page medical marijuana bill that was stitched together by opposing camps in the Proposition 2 debate.

What they might not realize is the draft they’re reading is already outdated.

Since unveiling the proposed legislation earlier this month, the state’s power brokers have continued meeting in private to finesse the bill language that could form the backbone of Utah’s cannabis program. Those involved in the talks say they’re not making major structural changes to the plan but are seeking to incorporate feedback and make sure the document’s wording lines up with their intent.

“This is not a baked cake,” said Connor Boyack, a medical cannabis advocate who’s been a key figure in the negotiations. “We’ve gotten significant input from patients and doctors and legislators, lobbyists, potential applicants who want to grow or open a dispensary. ... And none of the meetings are reopening the big issues. They’re questions that maybe hadn’t been addressed or anticipated in the high-level agreement.”

Largely, those involved in the talks are the same as those who stood shoulder to shoulder in the state Capitol’s Gold Room earlier this month to present the consensus bill, Boyack said. House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, participate. So do Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber; DJ Schanz and Boyack from the Utah Patients Coalition; and Marty Stephens, a former Utah House speaker who’s now a lobbyist representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hughes and Boyack said they expect the group to release an updated version of the bill next week and are confident they’ll have the proposal in good shape for lawmakers to consider next month. Gov. Gary Herbert has promised to convene the Legislature in a special session on medical marijuana, regardless of how the Prop 2 vote pans out.

The House speaker said critics have pointed to the ongoing negotiations as evidence that the group jumped the gun by rolling out an unfinished bill earlier this month. But if the group had debuted fully formed legislation, he said, critics would’ve accused them of failing to listen.

"The critics of our process are very nimble. It went from 'prebaked' to 'half-baked,'" Hughes said. "But if we said we're not doing any of that, they would argue that the public didn't have an opportunity to really ask those questions or provide that feedback."

Lawmakers have listened to public testimony on the legislation at a couple of recent meetings, and Hughes said he anticipates more opportunities for discourse in coming weeks.

Christine Stenquist, president of TRUCE Utah and a supporter of the ballot initiative, said she approves of working toward better legislation but not of the timing.

“I would’ve liked to have seen this happen before the session earlier this year," she said. “They knew the ballot initiative was in play,.”

She suspects the last-minute accord was a ploy orchestrated by those who want to see Prop 2 fail. Since the agreement was announced, polling has shown a steep drop in support for the initiative.

The consensus bill prepared by some medical marijuana advocates, critics of Prop 2 and lawmakers would set up a more controlled system of cannabis distribution compared to the ballot initiative. While Prop 2 would open the way for about 40 dispensary licenses, the legislation would initially allow only five licenses for “cannabis pharmacies.” A state-run pharmacy would also distribute marijuana to patients for pickup at their local health department.

Over the past few weeks, questions and suggestions about the draft legislation have been pouring in from all quarters, Hughes said. Stephens said he’s been keeping lists of all the ideas people have sent him.

“What we’ve all agreed is that whatever input we receive, we are not going to pull the rug out from under anyone in this process," Hughes said. “We are going to stay true to the vision of finding common ground.”

Boyack described several of the changes the group has made so far, and Hughes confirmed them:

  • The group members are deleting a requirement that prospective medical marijuana patients undergo a criminal background check. Boyack said this provision was inadvertently included in the original legislation. Stenquist’s group had been concerned that the background-check mandate would’ve been a financial and procedural barrier for some patients. 

  • They’re also tweaking a section dealing with the proposed compassionate use board, a group of physicians who review cannabis requests from patients whose ailments aren’t listed as qualifying conditions. The updated bill will clarify that patients approved by the board to receive a medical cannabis card do not have to come back before the panel every time a renewal is required, Boyack said. Instead, like other patients, the person could consult with a physician for renewals.

  • Another change relates to thresholds for how many medical cannabis recommendations each physician can issue. Under the original draft, qualified medical providers can’t suggest cannabis for more than 20 percent of their total patients (although specialists such as oncologists would be exempt from this rule). Boyack said this rule would be virtually impossible to enforce, since it’s difficult to track the total number of patients in each practice. Instead, doctors would be limited to 175 cannabis patients each, with specialists capped at 300 patients, Boyack said. A specialist could apply to exceed this threshold by 100 patients at a time, subject to review by the state health department, he said.

McOmber and Boyack also said they’re looking to refine language dealing with physician liability; they want doctors to be on the hook for negligence but not for the mere fact that they’re recommending a federally illegal substance, they said.

“We’ve all just been kind of reading through it carefully and saying, ‘Are we making sure this is understandable?’” McOmber said.

Stenquist predicts that many more changes to the legislation are in store after Election Day. The bill’s final shape will depend on whether the cannabis ballot initiative passes, she said.

“If it passes, I think they’re going to try to hold as close to Prop 2 as possible,” she said. “If it doesn’t pass, we’re going to be at their mercy, and we’re going to get whatever we get."