Utah Legislature could tweak marijuana laws before the program begins

(Gerald Herbert | AP file photo) In this Aug. 6, 2019, file photo, grow manager Thomas Uhle tends to marijuana plants growing at GB Sciences Louisiana, in Baton Rouge, La.

A forthcoming medical cannabis bill will contain an expungement provision for patients prosecuted in the past for possessing the substance to treat their ailments.

The anticipated legislation will likely suggest dozens of other tweaks to the state’s medical cannabis law in the months before the full program is slated to go live. The bill is in drafting phases, and elements are still in flux, but advocate Connor Boyack said he believes it will create a more patient-centered system for delivering cannabis treatments.

“We think this positions us well to continue to improve the program,” said Boyack, president of the libertarian Libertas Institute.

The expungement option will be a key piece of the proposal, along with the deletion of an unpopular requirement that marijuana flower must be sold in a blister pack. The updates will likely call for selling cannabis buds in glass jars, although there will still be an effort to ensure consistency in dosing, Boyack said.

"Blister packs were something we had to get away from for industry and for patients," said Desiree Hennessy, executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition. "It was just too costly."

If passed, this would be the latest evolution in a cannabis law that has been changing since voters approved Proposition 2 in late 2018. State lawmakers that year convened an emergency special session to replace the ballot initiative with a medical cannabis law of their own design and held another special session last year to make more pressing adjustments.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, will be sponsoring the legislation with an assist from Rep. Brad Daw, who predicted that officials will continue refining the state’s cannabis program for years to come.

"The overall goal is the same: To get legitimate, high-quality medicine to those who have a legitimate need," Daw, R-Orem, said.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Brad Daw, left, R-Orem, speaks with Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers are expected to consider changes to the state's medical marijuana law, an issue that has faced fierce criticism from people on both sides of the debate.

Boyack said the expungement provision will likely be available to people with a qualifying condition who used cannabis in one of the approved medical forms; the state’s law restricts the amount of marijuana a patient can possess at any one time and prohibits smoking the substance.

Lawmakers and officials are also trying to correct problems that have arisen for people who are consuming CBD, a federally legal substance that does not create a “high.” Because CBD products can contain trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, some users have failed court-ordered drug tests, Boyack said. One Utah woman earlier this year told reporters she was at risk of losing custody of her daughters for this reason.

The upcoming bill could specify that if someone in this situation claims he or she was using only CBD, the government couldn’t impose sanctions without offering additional evidence of marijuana possession, he said.

Boyack said the legislation might also address methods of testing for driving while impaired by marijuana.

"The cannabis metabolite can linger up to a month," he said. "This presents a huge problem, because those people can be criminalized, even though they're not impaired, even though they legally used the cannabis weeks prior."

Boyack said the proposal could narrow the testing to focus on certain active metabolites that don't linger for as long in a person's system, a change that would probably apply to medical and recreational users alike.

And, Utah leaders are looking at adjusting or removing existing caps on the number of cannabis patients each doctor can have, Boyack said, in hopes of alleviating concerns about a shortage of participating physicians.

"We want to be careful about that because of the whole idea of Dr. Feelgood," Daw said.

The bill will be considered in the Legislature’s upcoming 45-day session, which will begin Jan. 27.