Over the last couple years, medical marijuana in Utah has been a hot and controversial subject. In what has become a protracted, back-and-forth process between state legislators, medical marijuana advocates, and other powerful players in the state, Utah’s medical marijuana program continues to undergo dramatic changes.
Now, state lawmakers are preparing to make another significant change. Specifically, they said they will soon eliminate a proposal to distribute medical cannabis through state and county health departments. Instead, medical marijuana in the state will be sold through a network of privately owned and operated dispensaries.
As reported by local news source Fox 13 Salt Lake City, lawmakers are set to introduce the new change in a special session of the State Legislature.
Importantly, this change will overhaul the state’s planned system for distributing medical marijuana. Up until now, the state planned on using a “central fill” system. In this framework, all medical marijuana would be distributed and sold through state and local health departments.
The plan sparked controversy when it was passed at the end of 2018. Specifically, many medical marijuana advocates pointed out that the program would run into problems, as it essentially forces governmental workers and agencies to sell a federally banned substance.
And sure enough, those fears began materializing last month. Specifically, the Davis County Attorney and Salt Lake County Attorney both advised their respective health departments to not distribute medical marijuana. In both cases, the attorneys expressed concern that state and local workers might not be protected against federal prosecution.
Now, the proposed changes aim to avoid these problems. Under the new plan, there will be 12 private dispensaries throughout the state. Those dispensaries will replace the previously planned seven state-run distributors.
Additionally, the new rules will also make finance-related changes. According to early reports, lawmakers will allow for electronic payments instead of relying entirely on cash transactions.
In many ways, the new changes will move Utah’s medical marijuana program closer to the program originally approved by voters. In 2018, voters approved Proposition 2. However, that bill was quickly replaced by a different bill.
Immediately sparking controversy, this replacement bill was put into place exclusively by lawmakers—without going to a public vote. Further, the bill was drafted in closed door meetings between representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, high-ranking lawmakers, and other opponents of Proposition 2.
The replacement bill dramatically altered the provisions of Proposition 2. And one of the biggest changes was the switch from private dispensaries to central fill.
Ironically, the changes now being proposed by lawmakers are essentially returning to the distribution system originally outlined in Proposition 2. Lawmakers are now hopeful to get the program up and running by March 2020.
“We are happy to hear that the legislators are working towards better solutions for a healthier medical cannabis program,” Christine Stenquist, Founder and Executive Director of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, told Fox 13. “Even now with the possibility of an added five licenses for dispensaries, we will continue to see patients in rural counties severely underserved.”
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