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Two Medical Cannabis Bills Compete In Utah Legislature

Utah becomes ground zero for the conservative debate on safe access.

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Now that public opinion has tipped nationally in favor of medical cannabis, the battle has begun for legislative reform in the nation’s most conservative states. It seems Utah, with its proximity to states like Colorado, California, Nevada and Arizona, has become ground zero for the conservative debate for medical cannabis. Facing mounting demand and pressure from constituents, legislators have responded with two pieces of competing legislation for 2016.

The first bill filed was proposed by Sen. Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs) and is supported by a growing body of Utah patients who have toured the state in its promotion. Madsen was the sponsor of S.B. 259, Utah’s first whole-plant medical cannabis legislation, which was narrowly voted down earlier this year.

Madsen suffers from chronic back pain and nearly died from an accidental overdose after a prescription fentanyl patch burst and was released into his bloodstream. He made national headlines when he unabashedly outed himself to news cameras in February saying he had traveled to Colorado to try it and to learn about the industry. He is not running for re-election after the 2016 legislative session.

The second bill filed was proposed by Senators Brad Daw (R-Orem) and Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City), and was compiled by the legislators in conjunction with researchers they are working with. They do not have patient support at this time.

Both Daw and Vickers are staunch opponents to Sen. Madsen’s bill. Vickers works professionally as a pharmacist and business owner. Daw counts prescription drug abuse among his key legislative priorities and heads the SMART Coalition Policy Task Force. SMART is affiliated with national anti-marijuana lobby group Project SAM.

Utah has a small population and its legislative session is just three short months at the beginning of the year, with new bills being signed into law every March.

In early 2014, Utah became the first conservative state in the nation to pass a “CBD-only” medical cannabis law. The law, H.B. 105 legalized possession of extracts high enough in cannabidiol (CBD) and low enough in ∆ tetrahydrocannabiol (THC) to be arbitrarily classified as products derived from industrial hemp. A wave of conservative states followed, but as the program went into effect in Utah, it became clear to patients that it wasn’t enough.

Under H.B. 105, the state set up a Hemp Extracts Registry. Qualifying patients must pay and apply with the state to join the registry. If they are approved they are issued a card that exempts them from possession of CBD-only extracts. They must file individual lab tests for each batch of medicine they receive in person with the state department of health. There is no legal mechanism to produce or distribute the medicine in state; patients must break federal law by bringing the illegal medicines across state lines. Transporting a Schedule I Controlled Substance over state lines can result in mandatory minimum sentencing of 5-15 years in federal prison.

“For the 85 or so kids in Utah it’s benefitting, that’s great,” says Madsen. “For the other kids who have severe epilepsy who aren’t benefitting from CBD-only, well that’s a tragedy for those families.”

Madsen says he has spoken with hundreds of patients who have come to him since he proposed S.B. 259 earlier this year. He says that many parents of epileptic children have told him they need higher concentrations of THC and that they want access to whole-plant medicines.

Madsen’s bill is modeled after currently functioning programs in Nevada and Colorado, would include a larger list of qualifying conditions and has no restrictions on cannabinoid content. Madsen says his bill is about getting safe access and personal liberty to the patients in Utah who need it and that he thinks the competing legislation is an attempt to block his bill.

“It’s a distraction, a political placebo for some of my colleagues,” he says. “The bill was drafted around the perspective that government entities and special interests want to control this… I don’t think the patients factored into the drafting of that bill one iota.”

Madsen is a libertarian-leaning Republican, and says individual liberty and limited government are at core of his mission as a legislator and of this specific bill. He says it is misguided for the government to create policies aimed at modifying individual behavior.

“Every increment of freedom, whether it’s for 85 people, 8,500 or 85,000, it’s positive. I would hope Utah would live up to the principles it says it espouses and be an example to other states,” he says.

The sponsor of the opposing legislation, Sen. Brad Daw, says that he was inspired by the potential of CBD to file his legislation. He says the goal is to reduce the barriers to research and would like to open up channels to allow studies on CBD to begin at the University of Utah. Currently he says they are looking primarily at epilepsy but may also consider other conditions such as Crohn’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis.

“What I am trying to do is not play doctor,” Daw says. “In other words, we are trying to go to those who have actually done the research, looked at the literature and see what makes sense to safely use right now.”

Utah’s CBD-only legislation passed in 2014 is set to “sunset”, or expire, in the summer of 2016. Daw says his and Vickers’s bill would be a way of expanding on what he sees as the successes of that legislation. He says that H.B. 105 had some shortcomings such as not allowing production in state, but that it was a good trial run for the program he would like to introduce.

Daw and Vickers are not currently working with patients affected with by either piece of legislation. At this time they say they are just speaking to researchers, although a couple patients have reached out.

Sen. Madsen’s bill has garnered national attention and packed town halls around the state all summer. Momentum is building on the issue going into the 2016 session.

“Sen. Madsen’s bill goes way too far, it goes way over the line. It allows for THC, which we know is addictive, we know causes serious problems in teenagers and the regulations on it are way too loose,” Daw says.

Both bills will be heard in the Utah Senate in early 2016.