Utah House Passes Two Cannabis Bills for Terminally Ill, Advocates Skeptical

On Tuesday, the Utah House of Representatives approved — by a small margin — a bill that would see the Department of Agriculture provide oversight on commercial cultivation of medical marijuana.

In Utah, the minimum number of affirmative votes a bill can receive and still pass is 38. With 32 reps voting against the measure and another four not present for voting, 38 is exactly how many votes HB197 received. The slim margin of victory for HB197 almost went the other way. The proposal was put to vote Feb. 9 and received only 36 votes. But multiple state representatives changed their position on the matter since, while 4 representatives were absent in both votes.

Utah state representatives who changed their votes to “Yea” between last Friday and Tuesday (9):

Walt Brooks
Kay Christofferson
Kim Coleman
Becky Edwards
Kari Lisonbee
Adam Robertson
Doug Sagers
Norm Thurston
Mike Winder

Utah state representatives who changed their votes to “Nay” (7):

Joel Briscoe
Scott Chew
Sandra Hollins
Eric Hutchings
Brian S. King
Dixon Pitcher
Susan Pulsipher

HB197 will primarily do three things if enacted into law:

  • Along with a third-party entity, the Dept. of Agriculture will ensure that medical grade cannabis is cultivated within the state for use by registered patients.
  • By July 1, 2019, there must be a state-run dispensary to distribute the medical marijuana products.
  • Courier services approved by the state may be used to deliver medical cannabis to patients in need.

When HB197 failed to pass last week, another cannabis bill did make its way through the Utah House successfully. Coined the “Right to Try” bill, HB195 would provide terminally ill patients an alternative therapeutic option through cannabis.

HB195 passed with 38 votes, similar to HB197, a display of the strong polarity among Utah lawmakers on the issue. This isn’t the case with voters, however, where 76 percent want medical marijuana legislation passed in the state. Currently, marijuana is still illegal in Utah, with only low-THC CBD oil permitted for use by patients in need of therapeutic relief. While CBD oil is legal, there is no infrastructure in place for said oil to be acquired by patients, driving many to purchase medication on the black market.

While these bills represent steps toward progressive cannabis policy for the traditionally-conservative state of Utah, medical marijuana advocates are nowhere near appeased. Many patients who are not facing imminent death from their illness are shut out of the program.

Christine Stenquist, a 45-year-old patient who lives with trigeminal neuralgia, a painful nerve condition, argued there are many more who could use the plant to their benefit.

“I don’t suspect I’ll be in hospice anytime soon, but I live with chronic pain,” explained Stenquist. “Utah has a problem with an opioid crisis, not a hospice crisis. We have people who are dying from opioids because of chronic pain.”

Meanwhile, amid an opioid epidemic that took the lives of more than 600 Utah residents last year, some Utah lawmakers still appear uneducated about a drug that has not been conclusively linked to any death on record.

“There is evidence of unintended consequences that occur if you open up these floodgates all at once, or too quickly,” offered House Majority Leader Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville).

Advocates displeased with the limited scope of both newly passed bills are focusing efforts on a ballot initiative ahead of the November election that would see medical marijuana legalized for a greater number of qualifying conditions.

The efforts are being aided by Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), a group founded by Stenquist. TRUCE has helped the Utah Patients Coalition, who is leading the campaign, collect 102,000 of the required 113,000 signatures before the Apr. 15 deadline to have ballot initiatives included for the vote.

The voter-proposed bill would open up the program to a number of qualifying conditions including, but not limited to, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, PTSD, MS, chronic pain, and more.

Both HB195 and HB197 will now move on to the Utah State Senate for a vote, where Senate President Wayne Niederhauser has said he’ll fight the bills.

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