Cannabis advocates ask County Council to join suit against state
In addition to overseeing sewer hookups, evaluating whether a development threatens the area’s air or water quality, and administering a sweeping mental health operation, the Summit County Health Department may add one more responsibility to its portfolio early next year: marijuana distributor.
Cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, which, according to one activist, means the state’s medical cannabis law, H.B. 3001, essentially turns the state into a drug cartel.
Since the legislation calls for county health departments to distribute cannabis, the consequences for possessing and distributing the drug might fall to them as well, potentially imperiling their federal funding, Together For Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) representative Christine Stenquist told the County Council at a recent public meeting.
The Utah Department of Health has told the counties “not to worry about it,” Summit County Health Department Director Richard Bullough said.
“But until I have assurances that our federal funding is not at risk, and those assurances are in writing, I’m going to worry about it,” he said in an interview.. “The bill in its current form does put at risk our federal funding.”
The department has a $6 million budget for 2019, according to county documents, and Bullough said a rough estimate is the bill “puts at risk probably half our funding.”
“It’s a major, major issue,” he said.
H.B. 3001 deviates significantly from the ballot initiative known as Proposition 2 that was approved by voters in 2018, Stenquist told the Council earlier this month. Rather than the market absorbing the risk of federal penalties, it puts the risk onto the state’s counties.
She alleges lawmakers replaced Prop 2 with H.B. 3001 to delay the rollout of legalized medical marijuana and to assert more control over it..
Voters approved “Prop 2” by roughly 60,000 votes out of about 1.1 million votes cast. That breaks down to a 5.5 percentage point split.
Stenquist’s group, TRUCE, along with the Epilepsy Association of Utah, is suing to try to put a stop to H.B. 3001 and reinstate Prop 2, and she urged the Summit County Council to join the lawsuit.
Rocky Anderson, an attorney and former mayor of Salt Lake City, filed a lawsuit in the 3rd District Court of Salt Lake County last December that names Gov. Gary Herbert and Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, as defendants.
Andrew Talbott, a doctor in Summit County, testified along with Stenquist during the public comment portion of the June 5 meeting. A former anesthesiologist, Talbott said he now focuses on pain management and has patients all over the county, from Henefer to Kamas to Deer Valley. He estimated he’s written about 300 recommendations for cannabis, a number he said is “twice as many as the entire Intermountain Health Network.”
“My goal is to keep patients away from more dangerous therapies … (like) opioids,” Talbott said.
He added that he understands the county can’t make the decision about whether to join the litigation “on a whim,” but “formally requested” the issue be placed on a future agenda.
In an interview with The Park Record, Stenquist said another way H.B. 3001 attempts to delay implementation and suppress use of medical cannabis is by forcing doctors to write prescriptions with dosing parameters, rather than recommendations. That might put the doctors on the wrong side of the law in the eyes of the federal government, Stenquist said.
Though he anticipates lawmakers to change H.B. 3001 significantly, Bullough said his office is planning to have a program ready to roll out in January, three months earlier than is required.
“What I don’t want to have happen is for us to not prepare, not have a plan, and find out that we have to (implement it),” he said.
He said he asked for around $200,000 in the 2020 budget for the program, which will require staff “during business hours” and a premises for distribution, which has yet to be finalized.
Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Annette Singleton, executive assistant in the county manager’s office and the person who helps compile future agendas, said there is a pending item for Olson to “bring forward a discussion regarding medical cannabis” at a future County Council meeting, but no date has yet been set, nor is there a future action item that would allow for a vote.
Stenquist’s voice shook when she asked the County Council to join her cause.
“They understood this is a way to block medicine for patients,” she said. “You can do something. Please don’t be quiet. You can join this lawsuit and refuse to be bullied.”
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