Utahns share concerns on new medical cannabis compromise

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Katrina Lee and her son Mike wait with Kasumi their service dog for Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes to present the Medical Cannabis Act. Mike is a prospective medical cannabis recipient. (Anne Wallace)

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, presented proposed changes to the Utah Medical Cannabis Act to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee in a public hearing Monday, Nov. 26. Many residents from the community drove up to the Utah State Capitol for the hearing, a majority expressed their displeasure with the bill.

This bill is what has often been referred to as the legislative compromise on the original Proposition 2, which passed Nov. 6 with 52.7 percent of the vote. Many Utah residents in attendance at the Nov. 26 public hearing strongly opposed the changes and said they are in favor of continuing forward with the original legislation.

The new proposed bill adds definitions, regulations and clarifications, plus changes like eliminating the possibility of patients growing their own plants, which was an option for patients under Proposition 2 if they lived over 100 miles from a dispensary. Instead, the new bill introduced a centralized fill system and allows up to 10 private pharmacies across the state to fill cannabis prescriptions. It also adds additional regulations on which maladies can be recommended for medical cannabis as a treatment, and the use of a compassionate use committee for minors and other special cases seeking medical cannabis treatment.

The proposed bill also requires medical cannabis to be given out in medical dosages called “blister packs” and eliminates the possibility for any form of medical cannabis edibles other than a cube designed for ingestion.

After Hughes presented the proposed changes, committee members were free to ask questions. Four of the committee members were doctors and had medical concerns about the Utah Medical Cannabis Act. Family practice physician Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Holladay, said he has already had people coming into his office and asking him how to get their medical cannabis cards.

“I want to make wise decisions for my patients that do no harm,” Zehnder said. “There isn’t a lot of research out there for some of these conditions being approved for medical cannabis.”

Utah passed the cannabinoid research bill, HB130, in March 2017, which allowed the use of legal cannabis in the state for research purposes.

After committee questioning, the floor was opened up to the nearly 70 Utah residents who came to the hearing with concerns and messages. The room was so full that committee chair Rep. Brad M. Daw, R-Orem, had to ask some people to go to the overflow rooms out of consideration for the fire marshal.

This graphic depicts the Medical Cannabis Act and how it has evolved since 2016 when it failed to pass March 7, 2016. (Lilian Whitney)

One resident in attendance was Rachel Peterson, who said she came to speak on behalf of her daughter with epilepsy.

“For somebody like me, a single mom, there are things on the new bill that are going to make it virtually impossible for me,” Peterson said. “The pharmaceutical fill is going to raise up prices. I’m not going to be able to afford it.”

This concern was shared by many of the commenters, as well as Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City. Escamilla said she feared the tighter regulations on production and purchasing, plus the change to a centralized fill system, will cause prices to spike, making it too costly for consumers.

Peterson said she was also concerned about the proposed Compassionate Use Board for minors, meaning in order for her daughter to legally use medical cannabis, Peterson would have to argue her case in front of the board, who could approve or disapprove her request.

The Compassionate Use Board is not just used for minors, but also for those with conditions not expressly outlined in the bill. The board would be composed of seven qualified medical providers, according to the drafted Utah Medical Cannabis Act.

The conditions that will qualify individuals for medical cannabis outlined in the new bill are: HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer, cachexia, persistent nausea, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, terminal illness, illnesses resulting in hospice care, rare diseases or chronic pain, including risk for opioid addictions.

Lawmakers removed some of the broader language from the bill that covered autoimmune diseases as well as gastrointestinal diseases.

Many at Monday’s hearing said they felt the new bill is more restrictive on who could receive access to medical cannabis. Hughes said he felt differently.

“The Compassionate Use Board is critical to this program. It is made up of physicians and what it is meant to do is allow them to decide on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

The Health and Human Services Interim Committee listens to former Salt Lake City mayor Ross “Rocky” Anderson. (Anne Wallace)

Hughes clarified that patients can access the board electronically. It is not meant to be an arduous process, but one that will help legislators take note of common illnesses that need to be added to the legislation, he said.

“It is not a have or have not. It is a criminal justice category, but those who find themselves outside of that category have access to this system and this process, but they will have to make a medical case,” Hughes said.

Doug Rice, vice president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah, took issue with the cube, as it would likely be made of gelatin. He said gelatin makes it so patients who are vegans, Hindus or Jews, plus patients with other issues regarding animal products, would be unable to use the only edible product available.

Utah educator Kelly Jones called the new proposed bill and the changes within “a betrayal of Utah’s voters” and said to push the new bill forward would “undermine democracy” within the state.

Utah residents at the hearing expressed many concerns, but the most common sentiment was that they voted for Proposition 2, the original bill, and that is the one they want to be enacted.

Under the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, possession of medical cannabis will be decriminalized starting Dec. 3, as long as a patient can prove they have a recommendation from a physician and the drug is in a medicinal dosage form.

Laura Bunker, the co-founder of Family Policy Resource, expressed her support for the new bill, saying it provides “compassion for patients and protections for children, such as making medical cannabis available only in medicinal dosage forms with no marijuana-infused edibles.”

Bunker said Utah has a responsibility to protect children, as Utah has the highest amount of children per capita in the nation.

“Our children and young people need to see that the state of Utah treats cannabis like medicine, and so should they,” Bunker said.

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