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Counties Wary Of Handing Out Cannabis Could Mean More Private Utah Dispensaries

Photo of county health department road sign. / sshepard
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said millions of dollars in federal grants would be jeopardized if local health departments hand out drugs that are illegal under federal law.

Utah lawmakers are again tweaking the state’s medical cannabis law after several county attorneys raised concerns about dispensing the drug through local health departments.

“We as attorneys cannot knowingly and intentionally advise a client to violate [the] law,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “That’s unethical.”

The Utah Medical Cannabis Act, which lawmakers passed as a replacement for voter-approved Proposition 2 last December, allows up to 10 privately owned medical cannabis pharmacies and the state’s 13 local health departments to distribute cannabis.

But Gill said millions of dollars in federal grants would be jeopardized if local health departments hand out drugs that are illegal under federal law, adding that he has had those concerns for months.

“The cascading impact of that [would] be to transfer that loss to the Salt Lake County taxpayers,” possibly to the tune of millions of dollars, he said. 

KUER reached out to six other county attorneys for comment. Attorneys for Weber and Morgan counties confirmed they have the same concerns. Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlingstold Fox 13 on Monday he has advised Davis’ health department not to dispense medical cannabis.

Gill said he’s spoken with Utah Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, about the issue and the possibility of taking counties out of the equation.

“Whatever the solution they come up with, the counties — and certainly Salt Lake County — needed to be removed from it,” he said.

Vickers, a Cedar City pharmacist, helped author the Utah Medical Cannabis Act. He said he has spoken with county attorneys, the governor’s office and local health departments and is working on a fix.

“I think we’re nearing a legislative solution … that would minimize, if not eliminate the risk for the local health departments,” Vickers said.

The Cedar City Republican hinted that the issues could be solved in a special legislative session, though said there weren’t firm plans for one.

“There’ll be other things, I think, that maybe we’ll address in the general session. But there’s a few things that, ideally, we’d address in a special session before January,” he said.

The Republican declined to give specifics and said details are still being worked out.

In a statement, the Utah Patients Coalition Executive Director Desiree Hennessy called for more private dispensaries to help distribute the drug beginning next year.

We believe it’s very important to make sure patients throughout Utah, especially in rural Utah, can access legal medical cannabis. In light of counties’ resisting the central fill concept, we urge the Legislature to provide more private medical cannabis pharmacies to compensate.

Democrats largely opposed the legislative rewrite, which was passed in a special session less than a month after more than 52% of Utah voters approved Proposition 2 last November.

In a statement Tuesday, House Democrats continued to criticize the Republican-controlled legislature for overriding voter-approved ballot initiatives.

Legislative leadership told Utah that Proposition 2 — Medical Cannabis, which the voters passed, needed to be replaced because it would not function. Now it looks like their replacement plan also will not function. The legislature cannot override the will of the voters with failed plans, like they also did with Proposition 3 — Medicaid Expansion, and hope to maintain any kind of trust with the people we are supposed to represent.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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