A new version of a medical cannabis bill under consideration by state lawmakers strikes a requirement that patients undergo criminal background checks and fleshes out protections for pharmacists and physicians involved in dispensing the drug, considered illegal under federal law.
“The big concepts have remained, but we’ve found more artful ways to address the small-to-medium issues based on a ton of input,” said Connor Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute and a medical marijuana advocate.
The list of ailments — including HIV, cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and forms of chronic pain — that could be treated with medical cannabis has remained virtually untouched. So have the allowable cannabis product varieties and the proposed distribution system.
Under both the original and updated versions, a state-centralized pharmacy would ship cannabis orders to local health departments for pickup by patients. A handful of private “cannabis pharmacies” would also sell the substance.
The drafted Utah Medical Cannabis Act took shape during weeks of private negotiations between groups on opposing sides of the Prop 2 debate. While the two camps still disagree on the medical cannabis ballot initiative, they found common ground on the proposed legislation.
Gov. Gary Herbert has pledged to call a special session on the bill, potentially drawing lawmakers to the State Capitol in mid-November or early December.
In recent weeks, participants in the negotiations have continued fine tuning the language of the bill made public in early October.
Greg Hartley, chief of staff for Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, said officials wanted to share the updates before the Election Day decision on Prop 2.
“We did our best to get as many big changes in a draft bill form prior to the election so we aren’t accused of waiting for the outcome to determine what is in the bill,” he wrote in a text message. “That said, there are still some additional items we are working through and we expect to continue discussing other suggestions as they come to us. This bill isn’t final, but the framework of the compromise should remain consistent.”
Here are some differences between the original draft and the update posted online Monday:
- The new version adds a severability clause stating that if a judge overturns an element of the act, the rest of it remains intact. Boyack said the language was included as a precaution in case of legal challenge.
- It removes a requirement for patients to pay for a criminal background check and language disqualifying certain drug offenders from medical cannabis treatments.
- The updated bill finesses language offering liability protection to physicians and pharmacists who recommend medical marijuana, despite its status as an illegal substance under federal law. Patients could still take legal action against a medical provider for malpractice, Boyack said.
- A patient whose post-traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed by a psychologist with a doctorate could qualify for medical cannabis. Before, only PTSD diagnosed by a psychiatrist qualified; Boyack said there was some concern this provision would create a bottleneck because of a shortage of psychiatrists in the state.
- A 60-day renewal requirement for medical cannabis cards was stripped from the updated version. Previously, new cannabis patients would have to seek cannabis card renewals after 30 days, then after another 60 days and then after another six months. Boyack said this process would have been burdensome for patients, so the updated version cuts down on the number of required renewals.
- The new bill includes stricter rules about who can qualify as a caregiver or guardian for a cannabis patient.
- The legislation explicitly states that medical cannabis can’t be burned or smoked, although patients can vape it. Boyack said this language was inadvertently left out of the original version.
- Employment protections for medical cannabis patients are now limited to state and local government workers. The previous version was more expansive, also barring private employers from firing or refusing to hire people because they are medical cannabis patients.
- Local and state law enforcement officers are barred from enforcing gun laws that would prohibit people from buying or possessing a firearm because they are a medical cannabis patient.