Utah lawmakers vote to take cannabis dispensing out of the state’s hands, OK more private pharmacies

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) The floor of the Utah House of Representatives is shown during the Utah legislative special session, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers quickly approved changes to the state's medical marijuana law, an issue that has faced fierce criticism from people on both sides of the debate. The changes include scrapping plans for an unusual state-run dispensary system and adopting protections for patients who are concerned they could be prosecuted for drug crimes.

Utah lawmakers have had second thoughts about asking the state to dispense medical cannabis, voting in a Monday special session to leave distribution in the hands of private businesses.

A 122-page package of amendments to the state’s medical cannabis law unanimously passed both sides of the Utah Legislature on Monday evening and will take effect as soon as Gov. Gary Herbert signs it. The bill’s largest change was to scrap a proposed state-centralized system for delivering cannabis to patients, a plan that was criticized as unworkable and out of compliance with federal law.

The legislation, SB1002, also increases the number of private dispensaries and makes several other emergency fixes so the state’s cannabis program can ramp up on time — with marijuana treatments scheduled to hit the market in Utah by March 2020.

The bill’s sponsors said course corrections are to be expected as the state enters the unfamiliar territory of medical cannabis.

“Is this bill perfect? Of course not. Are we done here? Absolutely not,” Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said on the House floor. “But at the end of the day, I firmly believe that everyone in this chamber ... all want the same thing: They want to see those who can benefit from cannabis have access to product they can trust, rely upon and use.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Republican Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers looks on during a committee hearing, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, at the Utah Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers a few hours later passed changes to the state's medical marijuana law. A key difference? The new bill scraps plans for a one-of-a-kind state-run dispensary system and leaves distribution up to the private sector.

The state central fill pharmacy was a key component of the original Utah Medical Cannabis Act enacted in December to replace a voter-approved initiative. The idea was for the state’s 13 local health departments to distribute marijuana products across Utah, even in rural areas where it wouldn’t be profitable for a private pharmacy to set up shop.

But many were skeptical from the start about the public cannabis dispensing system, an experimental idea that would’ve been unique to Utah. As the time drew near for local health departments to take on their new role, county attorneys began piping up with concerns that the program would turn public employees into drug dealers in the eyes of federal law.

The amendments passed Monday would eliminate this central fill model and replace it with seven additional private pharmacy licenses, for a total of 14. The bill as initially introduced only increased the number of pharmacies to 12, but after a back-and-forth, lawmakers added two more.

“There was discussion about, ‘Is that enough, or is that too many?’ I heard both sides,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who sponsored the bill.

State agencies would be permitted to award the licenses in two batches — with eight issued at first and six more issued by July 2020 — and would have the option of adding more pharmacies if the market demands it. The legislation directs officials to divide the state into geographic regions and make sure there’s at least one pharmacy in each area.

To address the needs of rural residents, patients will also be able to order cannabis treatments online for delivery at their homes.

Some patient advocates applauded the revisions approved Monday night.

“These urgent fixes will allow the program to keep rolling out in advance of the March 2020 deadline,” Connor Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute, wrote in a statement.

On the House floor, Daw stopped short of guaranteeing that the state would meet that target but said prospects are good if qualified cannabis growers, processors and pharmacies step forward. And the bill will only expedite the process, he added.

“Without these changes, we would not be ready to go March 2020,” Daw said.

And for some, doubts remain about whether the new delivery system will meet the needs of Utah patients.

Christine Stenquist, founder of TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education) argued adding seven new private pharmacy licenses would be inadequate; the state should permit 13 new private pharmacy licenses to make up for the 13 local health departments that will no longer be part of the cannabis program, she contends.

“There was 13 distribution sites we were going to be given with the central fill,” she told House Democrats on Monday evening. “I want those 13 sites. I want 20 sites.”

Also objectionable to Stenquist is language that would enable the state to hand over cannabis patient information to medical researchers, unless a patient specifically opts out.

The legislation directs the Utah Department of Health to create a patient portal website where people can order cannabis products from one of the private pharmacies — a setup that is especially advantageous because it will facilitate electronic payment, Boyack said.

But Stenquist said patients will be scared off by a program that asks them to hand over sensitive health information to the state.

“This is big government,” said Stenquist, who is herself a cannabis patient. “I don’t feel safe at all.”

Supporters of the amendments say they more clearly spell out the state’s instructions to local governments: namely, to permit cannabis businesses within appropriate areas. For instance, with the legislative changes, cultivators would be allowed by default in a county’s agricultural zones.

Boyack, who was involved in negotiating the special session amendments, said the original cannabis act charged cities and counties with designating particular zones for marijuana ventures, but local officials have largely ignored this directive, creating delays as cultivators try to craft business plans.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Connor Boyack, President, Libertas Institute, speaks at a press conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday March 6, 2019.

Advocates have also complained that the legal system has unfairly punished some cannabis patients in the months since the state’s marijuana law took effect.

Some have faced criminal charges. Another case publicized by Boyack and fellow advocates involved a Provo mother who said she’s at risk of losing her children because of her legal CBD use. The woman wants to try cannabis to treat her chronic pain but is afraid the courts will respond by removing her daughters from the home.

Patients will get stronger protections under the amendments, which stipulate that a judge or other fact finder must treat legal use of cannabis like legal use of prescribed opioids or opiates.

The bill was also tweaked Monday to prohibit state lawmakers from having a financial interest in a cannabis farm or pharmacy. Vickers, a pharmacist, said he added that provision after fielding numerous questions about whether he planned to profit from the emerging marijuana industry.

“There’s a lot of money that flows through this industry,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we’re not allowing a legislator to be ... unduly influenced by finances coming from an industry that maybe they would want to have ownership.”

That restriction for state lawmakers would expire in January 2023.

Boyack has said cannabis advocates have proposed other tweaks to the state’s law, but they are less pressing and can come up for consideration during the January regular session.