Stage set for Utah medical cannabis showdown between ballot measure, lawmakers
SALT LAKE CITY — Three pieces of pending medical cannabis legislation all appear poised to pass this year — two sponsored by Rep. Brad Daw in the 2018 legislative session that ends Thursday, and the third a ballot initiative that voters will likely consider this November.
But Daw’s Capitol Hill bills share very little in common with the citizen-sponsored ballot measure and they could well be at odds with each other.
In addition to house bills 195 and 197 — the first would give a limited number of terminally ill patients the right to try medical cannabis and the second sets up state-controlled growth and processing of the product — Daw also recently rolled out House Bill 471, which would delay effective dates of voter-approved ballot initiatives until 60 days after the end of the subsequent legislative session.
DJ Schanz heads up the Utah Patients Coalition, the political issues committee moving the comprehensive ballot initiative forward. Schanz likened HB 471 to “moving the goal posts in the middle of the game.”
“To delay implementation for seven months, I just don’t understand what his modus operandi is. If it’s not to obstruct, I can’t figure out what it is,” Schanz said. “It definitely is poor policy and poor form, and probably won’t withstand a legal challenge.”
And Schanz predicts that backers of the other five statewide initiatives heading for Utah ballots this November will also participate in that litigation.
“Everything the Legislature is doing at this point is in reaction to the threat of the ballot initiative, so we think we’re on the right track to getting patients access to the medicine they need,” Schanz said.
SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE
Kaysville resident Christine Stenquist is one of those patients who found relief through cannabis. Four years ago, her vastly improved quality of life led her to advocate for medical cannabis on Utah’s Capitol Hill and to launch TRUCE Utah, a group of concerned patients and caregivers who seek safe, legal access to medical cannabis in Utah.
But legislative steps in that direction slowed to a crawl, convincing Stenquist to seek a ballot initiative instead, with the goal of making medical cannabis accessible to patients grappling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain and other rare and debilitating diseases.
“Brad Daw is doing exactly what we expected him to do,” Stenquist said. “His legislation isn’t substantive. None of these bills are giving us what we want and need, and now he’s attacking the ballot initiative process as well.”
But Daw, an Orem Republican who works as a software engineer for Adobe Systems Inc., views the cautious steps he’s taking toward legalizing medical cannabis as significant. In 2017, he sponsored HB 130 to foster cannabidiol research. That bill enabled former Utah Congressman Chris Cannon to launch Springville-based Endo-C and begin conducting CBD oil studies. CBD oil contains no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component in cannabis.
For Daw, this year’s HB 197 was “me keeping a promise.” When he passed HB 130, Daw said he told everyone that any cannabis preparation — regardless of THC content — would be available for research. But because federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, researchers were very uncomfortable bringing it across state lines. Cannabidiol, with its low levels of THC, posed less of a risk.
“I wanted to keep my word and make sure there is a supply of research-grade cannabis in the state available for researchers to use. That’s really what 197 is all about,” Daw said.
HB 197 authorizes Utah’s Department of Agriculture and Food to contract with a third party to cultivate or process cannabis for academic or medical research, and also establishes a state dispensary to provide the processed product in dosage form.
“We need to start giving this to patients where we think the potential benefit far outweighs the risk. The terminally ill population is the ideal place to start, because the potential for risk there is so low,” Daw said.
HB 195 defines terminally ill patients as those with medically confirmed, incurable and irreversible diseases that will likely end their lives within six months. The bill caps the number of patients for whom a doctor can recommend cannabis at 25, and also limits patient access to a one-month supply at a time.
According to Daw, HB 471’s intent is not to undermine any pending ballot initiative, but rather to allow time to balance budgets and make potentially conflicting measures somehow work together.
“We’re asking for a legislative session to work out any kinks to make sure the funds are in place,” Daw said. “If there are contradictory provisions in the law, we’ll need to address that and make sure we have consistent laws. It doesn’t undermine or raise the bar on passing initiatives, but it does give the Legislature the opportunity, and it gives state agencies the ability to respond to what the new initiative would be in a manner that’s consistent.”
And regardless of HB 471, lawmakers always have had the authority to make changes to any laws on the books, whether voter-approved or enacted through the legislative process.
NO PLACE AT THE TABLE?
Stenquist, who unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat in Davis County’s House District 17 in 2016, expressed frustration over patients effectively getting shut out of the legislative process.
“We have people in Utah that are desperate for access (to cannabis), who have tried all kinds of methods (to get relief),” Stenquist said. “But we don’t have a legislator willing to engage with us.”
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Image by: Rick Bowmer
Medical marijuana advocate Christine Stenquist spoke to reporters following a hearing at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Salt Lake City. She and other patient advocates believe pending legislation falls woefully short of meeting the needs of those who suffer. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The medical cannabis ballot initiative would establish four types of business licenses — for cultivation, processing, testing and dispensing of the product. It also caps cultivation facilities at 15 until 2022 when that number could be revisited and increased if needed.
“How do we have a state-run grow (with HB 197) and a free-market program (as outlined in the ballot initiative) at the same time?” Stenquist said. “This is one of the most lucrative industries in this century, and what we see is a complete lockdown of that. A thriving market is competitive and makes sure we have good product for patients. But (under HB 197) we’ll be stuck with whatever they give us.”
Rep. Ed Redd, a Logan Republican and physician, attempted to broaden HB 195 on behalf of patients he serves on a daily basis.
“Some patients have reported to me that cannabis was helpful to their condition, and they didn’t all have terminal illnesses,” Redd said. “If I were in their shoes, I ask what would I want to try — not as a drug to get high or have a party, but something to alleviate symptoms.”
His tweaks to HB 195 would have required patients to have worked with physicians and tried FDA-approved treatments that failed to alleviate their suffering.
TRUCE Utah supported Redd’s proposed changes to HB 195, but the Utah Medical Association came out against them, and its powerful voice held sway. Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber has often spoken against cannabis as medicine because dosing and prescribing practices have yet to be defined.
“At the end of the day, we were trying to get something passed this session. We could extend benefit to those without a terminal illness, but we didn’t want to lose support by pushing too fast,” Redd said.
Redd also sees potential benefit in treating chronic pain with cannabis rather than highly addictive opioid medications that sparked a nationwide overdose epidemic.
“Sometimes people could use fewer opioids or avoid opioid use altogether with cannabis. That could happen, and personally I don’t think it could be any more dangerous than using opioids,” Redd said.
MOVING THE DIAL
There is no doubt that Daw and Stenquist approach the same issue from entirely different perspectives. Daw serves as Policy Task Force chairman for SMART Utah County, a coalition whose aim is to prevent and reduce youth alcohol, marijuana and prescription narcotic drug misuse and abuse. Stenquist battles a chronic condition, and the opioid painkillers and other pharmaceuticals she took for many years had left her housebound. But cannabis changed all that.
“The Legislature is open to the idea of using cannabis as medicine, but not enthusiastic. It wants to take a slow and deliberate process,” Daw said. “But the fact is, going from a state that prohibits all use of cannabis period … to a state that allows (terminally ill) patients to try all forms of cannabis (except smokable) — it’s an enormous step because we’ve opened that door to say that we’re now going to play in the medical cannabis arena and allow patients to access it. Whatever results come from that will drive future policy.”
Stenquist also takes pride in the progress that has taken place and the broad public support Utahns have shown for legalizing medical cannabis. A January 2018 poll indicated 76 percent in favor. And supporters of the ballot initiative gathered more than 150,000 voter signatures statewide — those names are still being verified by county clerks but Schanz believes they’ll clear the required 113,143 threshold by mid-March.
“Four years ago, we weren’t talking about cannabis like this. We were just getting started with the CBD issue,” Stenquist said. “It’s kind of amazing where we are. A groundswell is an accomplishment. I’m really proud of Utah.”
And most of all, she’s determined to keep fighting for safe access until it happens.
“We can’t have any more medical refugees,” Stenquist said. “People want a timeline, they want to know how much longer they have to suffer in silence.”