Local cannabis advocates look back on 2016 session
March 18, 2016
The 2016 session of the Utah Legislature featured three proposals related to medical cannabis, one of which was SB89, proposed by Sen. Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City). It represented a modest growth of the state’s medical cannabis program and it made it all the way to the final day of the session where it was not defeated, but also was not heard.
Erin Brown, Park City resident and treasurer of the advocacy group Drug Policy Project of Utah, said even in that result there is a silver lining.
"We ran out of time to get the appropriation needed to finance the overall establishment of the program," she said. "Rep. [Brad] Daw [R-Orem] worked up until the last possible moment to ensure they had the necessary votes to pass SB89, but was unable to ensure that the program would be funded and in turn the bill died before a final vote could take place.
"I believe this point is worth noting, because SB89 did not fail or get voted down in the House. Rep. Daw had the votes to get this piece of legislation passed."
Even as the clock was winding down, Brown said the DPPU was working with Daw to craft a sixth substitute version of the bill, a pared down version that would at least "get something on the medical cannabis vote passed."
"The sixth substitute attempted to allow research institutions to more easily conduct research on and study medical cannabis," she said. "Rep. Daw only proposed this when he knew that the full version of SB89 wasn’t going to have time to pass. Unfortunately, time ran out on this substitute as well."
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Brown said on Monday, March 7, four days before the end of the session, things were looking up for SB89 — the House Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony from Sen. Vickers and Rep. Daws and the result was encouraging.
"It was in that meeting that an additional motion was introduced and subsequently adopted," she said. "The fifth substitute of SB89, a more robust and comprehensive version of the bill, moved out of committee and was headed to the House for a floor vote. Once this happened we were confident that the House would allow this bill to be discussed and debated immediately and that by Thursday we would be waiting on the governor to sign it into law."
Brown said DPPU members were in contact with House representatives throughout Wednesday and Thursday in an attempt to provide information, answer questions and gather support.
"We were in close contact with many of the House members, providing research documents and assisting them as they tried to gather the necessary support, and they were all confident that they would get the bill to the floor," she said. "We held out hope until the deadline passed for appropriations decisions to be made. After that, focus turned to the sixth substitute, which also ran out of time."
When it became clear SB89 would not get a vote, Brown said she was disappointed, to say the least. But again, she said, there is a silver lining to which DPPU and other advocates can point.
"We believe this was a real first step forward for medical cannabis in Utah," she said. "In our estimation, as many as 50,000 Utahns would have had access to medical cannabis under the program created by the fifth substitute of SB89. Many of us worked hard to ensure this bill took into consideration the concerns of all stakeholders while still including the greatest number of patients.
"We applaud all the hard work and effort made by those in the House and Senate for making important last minute pushes for this bill."
Jessica Reade Gleim, a Park City resident who serves as DPPU’s vice president, said the biggest stumbling block in the end was money. Start-up costs for the program would have been an estimated $800,000, and that late into the session there was not enough time to appropriate it. The upside to that, Gleim said, is that there is plenty of time before next year’s session to ensure funding is not an issue.
"We have already begun discussing a strategy with Rep. Daw about next session," she said. "We’ll be working to add additional co-sponsors, building a coalition of supporters, and beginning the process of meeting with stakeholders to revamp the content of the bill to ensure its passage in the 2017 session."
Gleim said the failure of SB89 to reach the floor for a vote is unfortunate in that it delays patients access to medical cannabis, but she said even looking back just a few years it is clear Utah is trending toward approving a comprehensive program.
"The pressure will be on the legislature to seriously address this topic in their next session," she said. "But both medical cannabis bills, SB89 and SB73 [introduced by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs], were the most viewed (measured in total number of web views) pieces of legislation over the 45-day session. This is encouraging, as Utahns are engaged in this issue and with the majority of this state, in fact, wanting to see a medical cannabis program implemented here, we will continue our efforts to make sure such a program gets passed next year."
"Momentum is on the side of medical cannabis."
The Drug Policy Project of Utah will host a Legislative Wrap-Up event March 31 from 6-9 p.m. at the Acoustic Space, 124 400 W. in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $10, and DPPU members will be looking back at the legislative session and what happened with cannabis and other drug policy-related legislation. For more information, visit http://www.DPPUtah.org.