SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah legislators approved changes to the state’s medical marijuana law, an issue that has faced fierce criticism from people on both sides of the debate.
The Utah Senate and House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday evening during a special session to send the proposal to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk.
The measure would replace plans for an unusual state-run dispensary system with 14 privately run pharmacies and adopt protections for patients who are concerned they could be prosecuted for drug crimes, among other changes.
Utah backtracked from the state-run dispensary after county attorneys expressed concern that such a system would put public employees at risk of being prosecuted under federal drug laws.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who drafted the law, said his team is “doing everything we can” to improve patient access and have product ready by next March.
Some lawmakers said they still have heartburn over certain aspects of the bill, sharing reservations about product distribution and a looming fear of federal prosecution.
Democratic Sen. Derek Kitchen said he’s concerned patients in rural parts of the state may have to pay more to access marijuana.
Before the House vote, Republican Rep. Keven Stratton suggested Utah seek a federal waiver to protect the state program from prosecution under federal drug laws.
Marijuana is banned at the federal level, though a congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with states’ medical marijuana programs.
The measure dictated that the courts may not treat a medical marijuana patient differently than someone who uses any other prescribed, controlled substance.
Another change prohibited the state from issuing cultivation and pharmacy licenses to legislators.
“A lot of money flows through this industry, some back to legislators,” Vickers said. “We don’t want legislators to have undue influence in an industry they want to have ownership in.”
Debates in the chamber reflected ongoing tensions over amendments regarding distribution and prosecution of drug crimes.
During a tense public hearing last week, members of the conservative group Utah Eagle Forum lamented the loss of the state-run dispensary system, while some medical marijuana advocates raised concern that there wouldn’t be enough private dispensaries to meet growing patient demand.
An earlier version of the law imagined 12 privately run dispensaries instead of the state-run system.
In the same meeting, a proposal outlining patient protections caused an emotional back-and-forth between conservative attorneys who argued parents couldn’t take care of children while using marijuana and patients who said the drug makes them better caretakers and helps them manage their pain.
Utah residents voted to legalize medical marijuana via ballot measure in November.
The revised law became effective in December after a compromise that secured the support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some marijuana advocates.
However, the deal drew backlash from other advocates as it banned many marijuana edibles, placed additional restrictions on growing cannabis and made fewer medical conditions eligible for treatment with pot.
Other changes addressed issues with land ordinances for cultivation facilities and marijuana research at in-state universities.
Marijuana advocates said they are optimistic about the changes adopted.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we see legislators working together, and they’re willing to work out a plan for patients,” Desiree Hennessy, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, said.
Republican Rep. Brad Daw acknowledged the measure as a good first step but expects additional changes to the program in January.
“I have close friends who, for them, cannabis is the only option, it relieves the kind of pain they have … we have every right and responsibility to work toward a law that allows medical cannabis to patients who need it,” he said. “Is this bill perfect? Of course not. Is this done? No, it’s not.”