ST. GEORGE — With less than two weeks until the implementation of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, a bill proposed by a Southern Utah senator making amendments to the act was passed unanimously Tuesday by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and now moves on to the full Senate.
The proposed Medical Cannabis Amendments, designated SB121 in the 2020 Utah Legislature, contains more than 40 amendments and makes changes related to things such as dosage, packaging and internal possession. The chief sponsor of the bill, Cedar City Sen. Evan Vickers, said during the committee hearing Tuesday that the bill arose out of information gathered from various agencies and organizations.
“It’s still kind of a moving target,” Vickers said. “There’s still a few things we’re trying to refine. We’re still getting input from people.” he said. “This is not a simple bill. … It’s a complicated process.”
During the hearing, Vickers gave a summary of some of the changes made.
Under the proposed bill, the use of blister packs to package unprocessed cannabis flower would be removed in favor of using the industry-standard of opaque, child-proof plastic or glass containers. The containers would be sealed with a date, and 60 days after purchase, the product inside would become illegal.
“You don’t want someone to just continue to purchase flower and put it into the container and say that’s legal,” he said. “We’re trying to provide a secure option.”
Cardholders visiting from out-of-state would be able to purchase at a facility in Utah under the proposed bill, though this would only be temporary and subject to limitations.
Additionally, the bill provides for an increase in the number of medical cannabis recommendations a physician can provide. Under Utah law, a medical provider cannot prescribe medical marijuana but rather provide a recommendation in the form of an “affirmative defense” letter that a patient can show law enforcement if stopped with certain marijuana products.
However, there are varying opinions when it comes to how physicians feel about recommending cannabis to patients, which has caused something of a roadblock.
“Some physicians are anxious to be engaged, and others – quite frankly, many – are not,” Vickers said. “It doesn’t help when we have erroneous articles out there by certain organizations that say, ‘Well, physicians are going to be thrown in jail.’ That’s not true at all.”
Due to the divide in willing and unwilling physicians, figuring out the number of patients for whom a physician is allowed to recommend medical marijuana is important, Vickers said, especially in preventing a case where a few physicians are doing all the recommendations.
The proposed bill increases patient limitations from 175 to 275 for a general practitioner. For a specialist, the cap would be raised from 300 to 600.
People using CBD who test positive for trace amounts of THC – for example, when taking a drug test for employment – would be able to challenge the test results and be exonerated of any repercussions as long as they are not found to be illegally using or possessing cannabis.
People who were charged for cannabis-related convictions could also potentially request expungement of their record if this bill is enacted.
Dosing would also be left up to the individual needs as determined by the healthcare provider.
Upon receiving directions for usage – whether that comes directly from the physician, the pharmacist or a combination of the two – there will be directions specific to how to take it. The reason for this, Vickers said during the hearing, is that the use of cannabis as a medication calls for a flexible dosing scheme.
“It’s a little different than just saying, you know, when you have a blood pressure medication, it’s one tablet a day,” he said, “because of the nature of the kind of medication we’re dealing with.”
One major point of contention expressed during the public hearing had to do with the 60-day expiration limit.
James Rounds, a voter in the 4th Congressional District in northern Utah, said he found the 60-day requirement to be absurd, stating that he found it was based on an illogical fallacy, and that the felony charge is unduly harsh.
“What would you do with expired medication?” Rounds asked. “Cannabis doesn’t expire. It simply becomes not as good as it was when it was fresh.”
In terms of the felony charge, he said, “there is simply no reason to ruin a person’s life for 20 years for what would probably be a single gram of cannabis.”
Nathan Kizerian, a plaintiff in the Proposition 2 lawsuit, said that he and his wife, who was a medical cannabis patient, used cannabis illegally for 27 months while she fought stage 4 cancer.
“This 60 day thing, I could call it immoral, (but) I’m going to call it pure evil,” he said. “Why do we want to put terminally ill people in handcuffs?”
Another slippery issue has to do with driving-related crimes due to how the body metabolizes marijuana.
This bill, if enacted, would exempt people who hold a prescription for cannabis from being charged with a driving-related crime for testing positive for the cannabis metabolite unless they are found to be actively under the influence.
Because of how THC is stored in the body, inactive cannabis metabolite can linger in the body for weeks and show up in a drug test, which presents challenges to determining if someone was intoxicated while driving.
St. George Police Sgt. Mike Christensen told St. George News that no definitive changes have been made yet. Officers are treating traffic stops the same as they always have, which is through requesting blood draws for any suspected substance.
“There’s no medical marijuana card yet,” he said. “Right now we don’t know all the ins and outs of it because it hasn’t passed yet.”
Christensen said the main concern will be driving under the influence.
“But right now we haven’t come up with a one solution to effectively address it yet,” he said, “and I think we’re kind of just sitting back and doing things the way we’ve always done and waiting for that time to come.”
Christensen added that another challenge deals with human rights.
“The whole purpose in Utah allowing this is medicinal purposes. So we have to go into it with a very open mind,” he said. “The whole purpose of this is to help people. Officers in general need to remember that. Let’s not forget that we’re trying to help people here.”
With some of the amendments being time sensitive, Vickers said they are trying to get the bill all the way through legislation by March 1.
One of the critical components of the program has been in product testing. Andrew Rigby, director of the Medical Cannabis and Industrial Hemp program, said there is some risk with setting up a laboratory specifically for cannabis, and there’s not as much incentive for laboratory operations as there are for cultivation processing and pharmacies.
“We estimate anywhere from 1-2% of the population could be patients of the program. It’s not going to be a very large program,” he said, “and laboratories traditionally tend to make the least amount of profit.”
This bill proposes some space within the Legislature that allows the Department of Agriculture and Food to test the product until a laboratory is up and running, Rigby said, adding that as of now, the product is set to hit the shelf on March 2, the first business day after the implementation of the medical cannabis program.
For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.
Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.