Utah marijuana opponents cry foul over Legislature’s planned tweaks to medical cannabis law

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Hemp plants growing under LED lights at Moon Lake Farms in North Salt Lake on Friday July 12, 2019. The Utah Legislature will meet in special session this month to discuss amendments to the state's medical marijuana laws.

If the opponents of 2018′s Proposition 2 had continued their campaign — rather than agree to an informal ceasefire a month before the election — Gayle Ruzicka is confident they would have defeated the medical marijuana initiative.

“We had a big ad campaign ready to go,” Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said Monday. “I know we would have won.”

Ruzicka and other members of the Drug Safe Utah coalition were asked by state leaders to abandon their efforts in service of a legislative compromise that ultimately replaced Proposition 2 in statute.

But next week, lawmakers will vote on amendments to Utah’s medical marijuana law that dismantle the compromise’s signature component: a centralized, state-run distribution system that would have turned county health departments into cannabis pharmacies and minimized the role of private dispensaries in providing drugs to patients.

“I don’t like it,” Ruzicka said. “I think they should keep the commitment that was made in the compromise.”

A panel of lawmakers met Monday to discuss the proposed legislation, which will be considered during a special legislative session Sept. 16. Bill sponsor Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said that while the central-fill pharmacy concept proved to be unworkable — opening government agencies up to federal legal liability — the primary motivation behind the changes are to better provide medical cannabis products to Utah’s qualifying patients.

“Bottom line is, we’re dealing with an illegal substance,” Vickers, the Senate Majority Leader and a pharmacist by profession, said.

Among the proposed changes are an increase in the permitted number of private dispensaries statewide — from seven to 12 — and the option of home delivery to increase access to products in rural areas of the state.

The home delivery component drew an objection from Walter J. Plumb III, a real estate developer who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the anti-marijuana efforts in 2018.

“Do we want to make this stuff easier to get?” Plumb asked. “What is the purpose of that?"

Plumb emphasized to lawmakers that while Proposition 2 secured a statewide majority, it failed in a majority of Utah’s counties. Strong support in Salt Lake County had swung the results, Plumb suggested, and other areas of the state should be allowed to opt out of the medical cannabis program.

“How on Earth does the state of Utah want Bountiful, Utah, to have a [marijuana] pharmacy or grow facility or something within its jurisdiction?” Plumb said. “The same thing applies to Lehi, the same thing applies to Provo, the same thing applies to St. George.”

He also questioned if additional marijuana dispensaries are necessary to serve the state’s demand, even in the absence of the state-run, central-fill system.

“We only have a population of 3 million,” Plumb said. “Do we really need 12 [dispensaries] in the State of Utah?”

But despite Ruzicka and Plumb’s objections, Michelle McOmber — who is CEO of the Utah Medical Association and who led Drug Safe Utah ahead of the 2018 election — told The Tribune she doesn’t see the Legislature’s amendments as breaking last year’s compromise.

She said the Utah Medical Association has been involved in ongoing negotiations with lawmakers ahead of the special session.

“We know the issues with the central-fill and what has been happening,” McOmber said. “We know that it’s not something that will work for the state.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had also participated in the Drug Safe Utah coalition in 2018, but has not issued any statements or positions regarding the upcoming special session. On Monday, a spokesman for the church did not respond to a request for comment.

Libertas Institute president Connor Boyack, a medical marijuana advocate involved with the Prop 2 campaign, said that while private dispensaries would expand under the new legislation, the law will remain significantly different than the original ballot initiative.

“It’s not like we’re just reverting to Prop 2,” Boyack said. “This new proposal is still a bit of a give-and-take.”

He said the government tried, in good faith, to establish a central-fill pharmacy and that it is “disingenuous” to suggest the state’s compromise was going away.

“It’s not like this was a political decision,” he said. “It was something that they actually tried to set up and they ran into legal and financial problems.”

Boyack also said the proposed language for the special session goes beyond the central-fill versus private dispensary question by including provisions that improve the law, even beyond what Proposition 2 anticipated.

The bill, as currently written, includes new legal protections for patients who are in compliance with the state’s cannabis rules as well as provisions that will preemptively allow for banking in the state by cannabis businesses in the event that federal obstacles are removed.

“We won’t have to go back to the Legislature to change the laws to allow it,” Boyack said. “It will just be an easy transition.”

Monday’s legislative hearing included comments on whether and how cannabis patients should be protected from legal consequences. Lawmakers discussed whether judges should be allowed to order a patient to cease using marijuana — similar to orders restricting use of opioids and other controlled substances — as part of judicial proceedings.

Dani Palmer, who represents the Utah Eagle Forum, said that the state should not tie the hands of judges, and that marijuana use by parents could be compared to negligent or even abusive behavior.

“They are basically out of it and unable to care for a child,” Palmer said. “I don’t know of too many cases where somebody on cannabis is capable of caring for another person."

But Megan Keller, a marijuana patient and advocate, said that she has been free of seizures for a year since she began treating her epilepsy with cannabis products. She said her medicine, like her gun, is safely stored in a lockbox and away from her children.

“I’m a damn good mom,” Keller said. “To say a judge should take away my kids is awful.”