The Utah House Voted On Two Bills To Legalize Medical Marijuana. Both Needed To Pass. One Didn’t

Photo Credit: Trent Nelson

If you’re in Utah and you’ve got six months left to live, you could ask your doctor if medical marijuana is right for you under a bill the House passed Friday. There’s just nowhere you could buy marijuana legally.

Under a surprise failure on the floor, lawmakers voted in favor of the bill that would make Utah the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana, but then failed to pass a companion bill that would have set up the framework for creating marijuana products for those patients.

The vote leaves what medical marijuana supporters say would be an unworkable law, with a narrow list of patients legally allowed to possess marijuana products but no supply.

“The engine is in the car, but the wheels got taken off,” said Thomas Paskett, policy director for the cannabis advocacy nonprofit TRUCE. “You can’t go anywhere.”

Representatives narrowed and then voted to pass HB195, which would have restricted access to approved medical marijuana products to terminally ill patients with a recommendation from their doctor to try marijuana if they have six months or less to live.

Then came the vote on HB197, which would have instructed the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to write rules on growing marijuana and contract with a third party grower to grow the plant. The agency would then act as warehouse and distributor of the plant that the federal government still considers illegal. The bill failed.

“One is dependent on the other,” said the bills’ sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, an Orem Republican who questioned his decision to file two bills separately instead of one after one failed. “Maybe it was the wrong policy, maybe it was the wrong decision.”

Factions emerged among lawmakers on both bills, with some saying they didn’t go far enough to offer patients who should have access to the plant many have grown to view as medically beneficial. Others pointed out the illegal status of the plant and said the state was welcoming trouble passing either bill, which would put the state out of compliance with federal law.

“The medicinal use of marijuana certainly increases the recreational use of marijuana as well,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. “We’re violating federal law. Whether we like it or not, this is an area of law preempted by the federal government.”

Rep. Mike Noel, a Kanab Republican and frequent critic of federal overreach, said by legalizing medical marijuana Utah would be reacting to years of inaction by Congress.

“This is an issue that our citizens really have asked about,” Noel said. “The fact that we have a plant that can give them some respite and can help them if they have convulsions, if they have pain, constant pain, we can [pass] it and do what the federal government should have done a long time ago.”

Rep. Ray Ward, a Bountiful Republican and family physician, took issue with a late amendment that removed nurses from the medical professionals who could recommend marijuana to their patients in HB195. The bill also capped at 25 the number of patients for whom a doctor could recommend marijuana.

“We don’t want to create what we refer to as Dr. Feelgood,” Daw said in reference to the patient cap.

Daw acknowledged the bill would be a narrow dip into the marijuana pool for the state of Utah. Other states, including neighbors Colorado and Nevada, have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Arizona and New Mexico allow medical marijuana and both states have discussed legalizing the plant for recreational use.

While a narrow plurality of the House voted in favor of HB197, it failed to gather the minimum 38 votes needed to pass under the chamber’s rules. Lawmakers could still revive the bill if someone who voted against the measure moves to do so, and Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, has said he may do that.

Lawmakers are having their own debate on cannabis issues while advocates for a far broader medical marijuana initiative that could be on the November ballot collected 142,000 signatures to put it there, according to DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition. The campaign needs 113,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Schanz has called Daw’s bills “cannabis theater,” and noted the initiative has language that he said would trump marijuana bills passed by the Legislature this session.

“They do little to nothing to give patients access and respite,” Schanz said.