The third time may be the charm for proponents of the use of medical cannabis by terminally ill patients and others who would benefit from alternative pharmacology, other than relying on opioids and severely addictive substances. In as many years, (2018 being the third) the state legislature has heard passionate testimony on the best way to allow access to the medical benefits of these naturally occurring, analgesic properties of cannabis, without the risk of adopting recreational sales and casual consumption along with it.
In 2016, then Utah State Senator Mark Madsen had introduced the subject of cannabis after consuming some edible “gummies” he had lawfully obtained in Colorado on Valentine’s Day. His first bill was rejected by Utah’s legislature and made significant strides the following year when Madsen fine-tuned the provisions of his medical cannabis bill to allow state control from “seed to harvest to packaging and sales.” During the 2017 session, the subject made it through the Senate only to be rejected by the Utah House of Representatives in the waning days of that session.
Rep Brad Daw and Senator Evan Vickers vs TRUCE
Having been defeated for a second time in 2017 by Utah’s conservative culture and lawmakers, a citizen’s initiative sprang forth to allow the matter to be put directly to Utah’s voters in the form of a ballot initiative. After witnessing favorable polling supporting medical use in the Beehive State, the citizens’ advocacy group known as TRUCE, (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education) became a not-for-profit reality, organized to further educate the public on the benefits of medical cannabis. Not long after their formal organization, the Utah Patients Coalition began the signature gathering process to qualify their initiative advocating medical cannabis use for Utah’s November 2018 ballot. At the time the initiative effort was announced and in its infancy, Utah lawmakers feared that the drafting of a ballot initiative would lack any of the politicians’ input or control in a final cannabis law. In Utah’s statehouse, 80% of the elected body are members of the conservative Mormon faith, most adhering to a strict code of health, eschewing alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs from their dedicated lifestyle and consumption. Representative Daw brings the bill to Utah’s House while Senator Evan Vickers (a pharmacist by profession) sponsors in the Senate.
2018 House Committee Hearing HB197 and HB1952S
In Wednesday’s House Health and Human Services committee hearing at the Salt Lake City capitol campus, it became evident that Representative Brad Daw’s (Republican – Orem) cannabis bills would both be leaving the hearing with a favorable recommendation, later to be taken up by the entire House body. HB197 covers the state’s role in cultivation for medicinal application and research, while HB1952S allows doctors to prescribe cannabinoids for terminally ill patients facing chemotherapy and the inherent risk of opioid addiction. This bill falls under provisions of the “Right to Try Act.”
Testifying in favor of both bills were several members of the community including Stan Rasmussen of the Sutherland Institute who termed the Cultivation bill (HB197 heard first) as “prudent,” and the State PTA who endorsed the measure because it addressed cultivation for “medicinal, not social” use. In previous years, the Utah Medical Association had opposed the Madsen effort but now approves the Daw concept of having the Utah State Dept of Agriculture and the state’s Health Department oversee cultivation and distribution. The UAMA said the bills were “acceptable.” Activists acknowledge their ballot effort as the reason for the newly-formed approvals and increased legislative involvement. With an initiative, elected lawmakers have no control or voice in what language makes it to the state’s ballot and voters.
Spokespeople from the advocacy organization were on hand to offer public comment and were mostly supportive of HB197, given what they termed as their “general agreement,” with the bills but expressed their concerns over what they termed as “vague mechanics,” of how the state agriculture and health departments would define their ongoing roles. When it came to the HB195 (second substitute) “Right to Try” bill, TRUCE’s Justin Arriola said that the bill was “problematic” in many ways. Without having a source established for the medicinal product, Arriola said too much was left undone by Daw’s bill.
Another reason why TRUCE is opposed to the Daw effort is that they have advanced their ballot initiative, securing 102,000 of the 160,000 required signatures to qualify their measure for the November ballot. “We’re well on our way to completing that part,” said Christine Stenquist, one of TRUCE’s founders and directors. She described the legislative effort as one of interference with the will of Utah’s voters and an effort by Utah’s dominant culture, so prevalent in the statehouse, to flex their own muscle. “The patient bill is very weak and it’s a restrictive bill,” said Stenquist, “It doesn’t go far enough [for patients].” She went on to say that “In a business friendly state like Utah, this ultimately becomes a message bill.” The message, TRUCE says, is that legislators resent the efforts by the people to enact their own laws.
The two bills will advance to the first reading calendar in the Utah House of Representatives within the next week.