Summit County would be off the hook for medical pot distribution under new proposed changes
The way Utah’s medical cannabis law is written, the state would collect the processed pot in a centralized location, then ship it to local health departments to distribute among patients in the area.
That means, under the current law, the Summit County Health Department would warehouse and distribute the drug, and assume all the risks of doing so. Cannabis remains a Schedule I drug in the eyes of the federal government — a category for drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Health departments rely heavily on federal money, and they’re not particularly fond of running afoul of Uncle Sam. So a staff memo with proposed rule changes that made its way around the state Legislature last week was welcome news for Summit County Health Department Director Rich Bullough, who estimates the department receives about half of its $6 million budget from the feds.
The letter states flatly that, under the proposed alterations, “local health departments will not be involved in the medical cannabis program.”
“The bottom line is, the residents of our state voted to pass a resolution to provide access to medicinal cannabis,” Bullough said. “Assuming that objective is met, I certainly don’t have any opposition to any changes. I’ve been concerned and … my concern has been shared by other local health officers, health districts, county councils and county commissions.”
The memo, titled “Proposed medical cannabis legislation,” was distributed to legislators Aug. 20, and indicates the changes would be discussed at a September special legislative session. The suggestions are sweeping and would restructure the way patients would access cannabis, aligning more closely with the plan voters approved last year as Proposition 2, which lawmakers significantly tweaked.
The vision is for the Utah Department of Health to create a central portal for those seeking access to cannabis, a website that will authenticate patients, provide information and even facilitate orders.
The new setup would scrap the centralized model that used existing health department infrastructure to distribute the drug and instead increase the number of private cannabis pharmacies from seven to 12. That appears to put more of the risk on the market, rather than the state, something that is commonplace in other states that have legalized medical marijuana.
The proposed changes also call for home delivery from certain pharmacies in a bid to improve access for patients as a dozen pharmacies will attempt to serve the entire state.
In another move to put the risk on the private market as opposed to the state, financial transactions through the state portal would be handled by the pharmacies themselves. Many national banking organizations, including credit card companies, have been reluctant to provide services for cannabis distributors for fear of federal backlash.
Medicinal cannabis advocate Christine Stenquist, whose organization Together For Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) is suing the governor and executive director of the state health department over changes to Proposition 2, said it was good to see the program move toward a model used successfully in other states.
But she expressed reservation over the distribution method, what she considers overreliance on deliveries, restrictions on the number of patients doctors can refer to cannabis and what is, in her view, a general sense that legislators are putting up roadblocks to patient access to care.
Proposition 2, Stenquist said, allowed for one dispensary in each county and up to one dispensary per 150,000 residents. That meant, for example, Salt Lake City might have had up to six dispensaries.
She wondered how deliveries would work, who would pay for them, and whether patients would have to wait around from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. like they might for the cable guy.
She said the organization will not drop the suit until after a potential special session, but is looking forward to participating in the talks and said she was told she’d be welcomed back to the table.
Voters approved Proposition 2 by roughly 60,000 votes in 2018. Later that year, Gov. Gary Herbert signed H.B. 3001 into law, a compromise bill that deviated in many ways from the referendum approved by voters.
Bullough said the Summit County Health Department is still preparing to be able to roll out the program as envisioned in H.B. 3001 early next year. He has said he’s budgeted about $200,000 for a distribution facility, including the cost to secure it and administer the program. The Summit County budget is still in the preliminary discussion stage and will be finalized by the end of the year.
Other proposed changes would treat cannabis similarly to other prescription drugs in the legal system, including for plea deals and probation, allow for cultivators to grow indoors and outdoors and would allow universities to conduct research on the drug similar to previous authorizations for industrial hemp.
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