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Utah Lawmakers Advance Bills Allowing Terminally Ill to Use Medical Cannabis

However some advocates say these bills are an attempt to undermine support for an upcoming ballot measure, which could create a more inclusive MMJ program in the state.

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The Utah state Senate has given preliminary approval to a set of bills that would allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis. The first of these bills, HB195, would give any patient that has less than six months to live the “right to try” medical cannabis, but not in a form that could be smoked or otherwise inhaled. The second bill, HB197, would allow the state Department of Agriculture to grow cannabis for these approved patients.

Both of these bills passed the state House of Representatives last month, but HB197 nearly failed due to concerns that allowing the cultivation of medical cannabis would violate federal law. "We expect to follow the order of law and with passage of this, we would be in noncompliance with federal law," state Rep. Derrin Owens said, according to Fox News 13. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, argued that HB197 was necessary because it provided a means to grow the cannabis allowed under HB195, which had already passed the House.

The cultivation bill finally passed the House with a 38-32 vote, and both bills moved to the state Senate, where Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne urged her fellow legislators to approve them. "We need to give relief. That's what we're here for. We're here to help," she said, according to Deseret News. “You need to give guidelines for them, give relief to not just the patients, but the families." Twenty-two state Senators voted for each bill to advance, and the likelihood of the bills' final passage appears favorable.

Utah legislators attempted to pass a more comprehensive medical cannabis law in 2015, but it collapsed under opposition from anti-cannabis lobbyists. At the time, Rep. Daw argued against the bill because it would have legalized the use of products containing THC, which he said was “addictive” and dangerous. Frustrated by lawmakers' failure to enact a full-bodied medical marijuana law, the Utah Patients Coalition decided to take matters into their own hands and successfully petitioned to have a medical marijuana initiative included on this year's general election ballot.

Rep. Daw has proposed another bill in the House, which would delay the effective date of any voter-approved medical cannabis measure until 60 days after the end of the subsequent legislative session. This bill, if passed, would effectively delay the start of any legislative deliberations over a voter-approved medical cannabis law by an additional seven months. “I just don’t understand what his modus operandi is,” Utah Patients Coalition head DJ Schanz said to the Standard-Examiner. “If it’s not to obstruct, I can’t figure out what it is. It definitely is poor policy and poor form, and probably won’t withstand a legal challenge.”

“The Legislature is open to the idea of using cannabis as medicine, but not enthusiastic. It wants to take a slow and deliberate process,” Daw explained to the Standard-Examiner. “But the fact is, going from a state that prohibits all use of cannabis period ... to a state that allows (terminally ill) patients to try all forms of cannabis (except smokable) — it’s an enormous step because we’ve opened that door to say that we’re now going to play in the medical cannabis arena and allow patients to access it. Whatever results come from that will drive future policy.”

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Some legislators have even characterized Daw's sponsorship of HB195 and 197 as a means of undermining support for the ballot initiative. “I’m suspicious and concerned that what this bill really is is an attempt to undermine the ability of the people of the state of Utah to weigh in on this in the form of a ballot initiative," House Minority Leader Brian King said to Fox News 13. “Everything the Legislature is doing at this point is in reaction to the threat of the ballot initiative, so we think we’re on the right track to getting patients access to the medicine they need,” Schanz told the Standard-Examiner.

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