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Lawmakers Toss State System, Double Cannabis Pharmacies In Special Session

Photo of empty Utah Senate Chamber.
Austen Diamond for KUER
Utah lawmakers met in a special session on Monday where they addressed the lingering logistics surrounding the state's medical cannabis system.

Utah lawmakers approved a medical cannabis system that will use more privately-run dispensaries instead of public health departments to help distribute the drug. 

The bill — approved unanimously by both chambers in a special session Monday night — allows for at least 14 private cannabis pharmacies, up from the current seven, as well as home delivery of the drug.

At the heart of the changes were concerns from county attorneys over the possibility of local health departments dispensing cannabis.

Attorneys from Salt Lake, Davis and Weber Counties had taken issue with the state-run “central fill system.” They said local health departments’ federal funding would be jeopardized if they distributed cannabis, which is federally illegal.

“This bill is a step forward. It certainly isn’t the end of it,” said House sponsor Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem. He said that without the legislation, the state would not meet its March 2020 deadline to have products on shelves.

The cannabis pharmacies will be phased in, with eight in the first group early next year and six more receiving licenses by July 1. Additional dispensaries could be allowed if both the state Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Food find 14 is not enough. The original law would have approved a combined total of 20 state and private dispensaries.

The legislation also allows patients to possess up to a 30-day cannabis supply and expressly prohibits state lawmakers from being involved in the cannabis business.

Some cannabis advocates applauded the changes, saying the new legislation will ease access to the drug when the state begins selling it next year.

“These urgent fixes will allow the program to keep rolling out in advance of the March 2020 deadline,” Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute wrote in a statement.

But cannabis opponents were unhappy with the legislation. Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said the state central-fill system was the centerpiece of a deal struck between advocates and opponents last year.

“Every time they meet, they just change more things,” Ruzicka said, and are moving “back toward Prop 2.”

Other Items

Lawmakers also approved a $1.5 million-dollar settlement with former Attorney General John Swallow, who was acquitted of corruption-related charges in 2017.

The legislature also appropriated $1 million for outreach ahead of the 2020 Census, half of which will be used to target those in rural areas.

Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute, said Utah received about $5.7 billion — almost $2,000 per Utahn — from the federal government based on the 2010 Census.

“The census means funding to our state. It means political representation to our state. So an accurate count is incredibly important,” she said.

Lawmakers also approved technical changes to alcohol and election laws. On Nov. 1, grocery and convenience stores will be able to sell beer up to 4% alcohol by weight, but they needed state approval to transport and store the beverages before then.

The state will also delay the date of the June 2020 primary election by one week. That will give political parties more time to hold nominating conventions around Easter and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ semi-annual General Conference. The primary will now be held June 30, 2020.

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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