Updated 12/3/18 9:00 p.m.
Just two days after a sweeping new medical cannabis law went into effect, Utah lawmakers passed an overhaul of the measure in a special session at the state capitol on Monday.
The Utah Medical Cannabis Act sailed through both chambers with overwhelming Republican support despite resistance from Democrats and some proponents of medical marijuana.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law Monday night. His office shared a photo of the signing on Twitter with a caption stating Utah now has “the best-designed medical cannabis program in the country.”
— Gov. Gary Herbert (@GovHerbert) December 4, 2018
“Working with trained medical professionals, qualified patients in Utah will be able to receive quality-controlled cannabis products from a licensed pharmacist in medical dosage form. And this will be done in a way that prevents diversion of product into a black market,” Herbert said in a statement.
Retiring House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, had championed the legislation as a fair and transparent agreement between opponents and some patient advocates, hammered out over months of private negotiations and public meetings.
“The bill you have before you today is a product, in large part, of the ongoing public input that has come as we have been working on this since late August,” Hughes said.
The Republican leader defended the bill in a two-hour floor debate against what he called “false narratives” about the Legislature’s role in revising the statute and said the agreement would provide pain relief for patients while protecting public safety.
"I would be making the same case to you that I'm making right now, because I believe that this agreement was a landmark day for this state and that we are helping people,” he said.
But not all patient advocates were on board for the compromise, with some describing the session as a blatant power grab by lawmakers.
“What I think about the process is it’s a sham — it’s an absolute sham,” said Christine Stenquist of the pro-patient group TRUCE.
Stenquist and other advocates packed the chamber galleries to watch lawmakers. She said her group was prepared to file a lawsuit.
“When you sit there and make the citizens of Utah jump through the hoops … to pass an initiative, and at the first business day you undermine and you remove our voice, that’s a problem,” she said.
The latest version of the legislation was unveiled on Friday. It includes some provisions lawmakers had initially stripped but put back in after patient backlash. One of those will expand the types of medical providers who can recommend cannabis to include nurse practitioners and physician assistants, a concession to rural parts of the state where physicians are in shorter supply.
But it also stripped legal protections for renters, eliminated most edibles and narrowed definitions for some qualifying illnesses. Additionally, patients who are 18-20 years old will have to seek permission from a “compassionate use board” in order to access the drug.
The state of Utah will have a hand in distribution through a central cannabis pharmacy with as many as 10 private dispensaries also permitted.
Democrats attempted to block the legislation by introducing their own substitutes, all of which were voted down.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers should only be making revisions to comport with existing law.
“Time and time again in this same chamber, I have heard it argued that we shouldn’t be a nanny state. That we should let private citizens regulate their own lives and those of their families, but when I look at we’re doing … it flies in the face of that argument,” said Chavez-Houck.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, accused lawmakers of subverting the will of voters.
“For this group, this wonderful group, to come in a few days after an election and say, ‘We know better than 52.75 percent of the citizens who went and voted.’ … I think is a level of arrogance that we ought not to display to the rest of the state,” said Dabakis, whose own substitutes failed to gain support.
Despite Republican leaders’ assertions that the rewritten legislation would resolve most outstanding issues, other lawmakers hinted at the likelihood of changing the law further over the next few years as several regulations go into effect.
“This is far from being done,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. “In fact, I’m sure just like our alcohol laws, we will have our annual medical cannabis bill for the foreseeable future.”
New State Prison
In other action, lawmakers approved funds for construction of the new state prison next to the Salt Lake City airport.
New revenue projections for the next fiscal year show the state will have more than $1.2 billion in one-time and new ongoing funds.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who chairs the Executive Appropriations Committee, said it makes sense to use some of that money to pay for construction costs up front instead of issuing a bond, which would cost the state $50 million in interest.
“We feel this bill is very appropriate for what we need to do and it will take care of the prison’s needs as we go through the construction season,” said Stevenson, R-Layton.
Both chambers unanimously approved a bill to appropriate $235 million in capital funding over the next two years. The state had previously authorized up to $285 million in bonds.
The total cost of relocating the prison from Draper to Salt Lake City is now estimated to cost $696 million. Lawmakers have grappled with putting in infrastructure and utilities in an underdeveloped part of municipal.
The new facility is expected to house 4,000 inmates.
The last order of business for lawmakers was an update to Utah’s drivers’ licenses to comply with federal requirements.
Lawmakers repealed a provision to comply with the Real ID Act by adding a gold star to Utahns’ driver’s licenses and other ID cards. The change is necessary by 2020 for Utahns to board planes or other places where federal ID is required.
The issue has lingered since 2010 when lawmakers objected to federal rules imposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, calling it an “unfunded mandate.”
“We’re already fully compliant, now let’s do the last step,” said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville.
Coming into compliance now will save the state about $80,000 per month in licenses that will not need to be replaced, Harper said.
Legislators will still need to fund the new changes in the next general session, estimated to cost between $2-3 million.