Summit County Health Department director concerned with Prop 2 compromise
In the weeks leading up to Utah voters passing Proposition 2, the statewide ballot initiative to allow access to medical marijuana for people suffering from debilitating and terminal illnesses, critics and proponents negotiated a compromise bill that would allow the state to more tightly regulate the industry.
Lawmakers released the first draft of the 187-page bill in early October and a revised version on Tuesday that could be considered by the Utah Legislature during a special session. Governor Gary Herbert said he would call the session to pass the legislation regardless of whether the initiative passed.
The compromise has been lauded by its proponents as a way to provide access to medical marijuana without putting communities at risk. It outlines regulations for cultivating marijuana and tracking the product’s users. The bill would also establish a central processing facility for the state from where the product would be shipped to local health departments for distribution, in addition to allowing patients to procure medical cannabis from a limited number of private pharmacies. Local health departments would not have a role in distributing medical marijuana under Prop 2.
Local health officials across the state are beginning to explore how the compromise would affect operations at the 13 local health departments. The Utah Department of Health has been heavily involved in the conversations surrounding the compromise bill, with Joseph Miner, executive director, keeping Rich Bullough, director of the Summit County Health Department, in the loop.
“We weren’t surprised,” Bullough said, referring to the responsibility that would fall on local health departments under the compromise. “We are not thrilled about it. But, the fact is we understand it is being done in good faith and we believe in being a good partner in this.”
The Utah Department of Health would be responsible for issuing medical cannabis cards to patients, registering physicians who wish to recommend medical cannabis treatment for their patients, and licensing medical cannabis pharmacies, according to the Department of Health.
Individual health departments would be responsible for distributing the marijuana to patients in their communities. The idea behind distribution at local health departments is to ensure it is reasonably accessible across the state, Bullough said.
But, that component of the compromise has raised some concerns for him regarding security, distribution, funding and overall logistics.
Bullough suspects there will be a learning curve as the state explores how to standardize distribution at the various health departments. He added, “Some of this will take time. We will have to figure it out and make it work.”
“I don’t think it is directly in conflict with our mission,” Bullough said. “We provide vaccines and women’s health services so this isn’t completely counter to that. But, it is well outside of what we would consider traditional and fundamental public health. It is completely outside of that for us and, consequently, we are uncomfortable.”
Bullough said conversations will have to take place internally at the county’s health department, as well as with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and various community partners to better understand how it would look.
“It is absolutely new territory and I, personally, wouldn’t go as far as to say this isn’t appropriate,” he said. “But, it is well outside of what we do.”
Another issue that Bullough said hasn’t been fully discussed is the impact the compromise could have on the federal funding that local health departments receive. The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and LSD.
“I am still concerned about that,” he said. “That is one of the questions that will have to be answered before we are all in because we receive a significant amount of funding for our programs and prevention.”
It is unclear to Bullough how much it would cost the county’s health department to act as a medical marijuana pharmacy. He said a rough estimate will have to be put together to understand the costs and expenditures. However, he doesn’t anticipate it will be too costly to implement the program in the county.
Lots of questions remain unanswered for Bullough. But, he said there is plenty of time to figure out how best to adopt the program in the county.
“It’s very early and we want to see ultimately what the final bill is. I am quite confident that it will be passed and quite confident we are going to be involved,” he said. “We have scheduled a meeting with some key staff here internally just to begin to brainstorm about what this will look like and how are we going to ensure security if the prescriptions are kept on site?”
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