Gov. Herbert calls for special legislative session on medical marijuana, census funding and beer storage

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Speaker of the House Brad Wilson listens to comments on a bill, late in the evening, on the final day of the 2019 Legislature, March 14, 2019. Legislators will meet Sept. 16 to debate changes to the state’s laws on medical marijuana, alcohol and elections and to consider funding for the 2020 census.

Utah lawmakers will meet Sept. 16 to debate changes to the state’s laws on medical marijuana, alcohol and elections and to consider funding for the 2020 census, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday.

Herbert’s call for a special session lists seven items for consideration, beginning with the repeal of a proposed centralized, state-run cannabis pharmacy that was to supply medical marijuana products to Utah patients through county health departments.

The central fill pharmacy, a key provision in the Legislature’s effort to replace the voter-approved Proposition 2, has come under fire after counties objected to their health department employees acting as “drug dealers" in violation of federal law.

“My administration is dedicated to ensuring that quality, medical grade cannabis products are accessible to patients by March of 2020,” Herbert said in a prepared statement. “Removing the requirement for a state central fill pharmacy will provide efficient and timely distribution of this substance for those who need it.”

Connor Boyack, a medical marijuana proponent and president of the Libertas Institute, said there is a consensus around “several urgent changes” that are necessary for the state’s medical cannabis program to launch early next year. Lawmakers have discussed increasing from seven to 12 the number of authorized private cannabis dispensaries and allowing home delivery of marijuana products to meet demand without the state-run distribution system.

“There are a number of other improvements we have proposed that are less urgent,” Boyack said, “which will be considered by the Legislature in January.”

In addition to medical marijuana, the special session will include amendments to the date of the 2020 primary election, the transportation and storage of beer, approval and funding of court settlements, tax incentives related to independent certified public accountants, funding for the U.S. census and gubernatorial appointments.

Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt said the proposed change in the primary election date — from June 23 to June 30 — was requested by the state’s political parties to allow more time for their caucus and convention meetings.

On alcohol policy, lawmakers earlier this year approved the sale of higher-alcohol beers in grocery and convenience stores, lifting the state’s cap from 3.2% to 4% alcohol by weight — or from 4% to 5% alcohol by volume. That change will take effect on Nov. 1, but distributors say that there will be a lapse in the state’s beer supply if retailers are prohibited — as they are under current statute — from storing the higher-strength products in October.

“It’s a big, logistical issue to move that much product if you can only deliver it on midnight on November 1,” said Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition.

Bradshaw compared the dynamic to the state’s fireworks laws, which allows sales and displays only during narrow windows during the year, but which permits retail storage in preparation of those periods.

“It’s kind of a short-term problem and a short-term fix,” she said of the proposed alcohol amendments.

The issue of census funding was raised during the most recent regular legislative session by Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, who unsuccessfully urged her colleagues to set money aside for the once-in-a-decade count of the state’s residents.

Since that session adjourned, several Utah neighborhoods have been identified by census officials as being among the hardest to count in the nation, and state leaders have suggested supplemental investment may be necessary to ensure an accurate survey.

In a prepared statement, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said a special session will provide an opportunity to adjust and improve laws as circumstances change.

“Legislators will convene to discuss and hear public comment on issues, deliberate on matters and take possible action,” he said.