Medical Cannabis Updates

In an effort to get medical cannabis to patients before the March 2020 deadline outlined in HB 3001, Utah Medical Cannabis Act, we needed to make some changes to keep things on track. When dealing with complicated legislative matters, it is typical to need adjustments as we develop a new program or comprehensive public policy. Medical cannabis is no exception. The changes made this week were not the first changes made, and they will not be the last. We expect to see legislation to continue to improve the program in the 2020 General Legislative Session, but the changes made in this special session were to address current and immediate needs.

Eliminating the State Central Fill Program

In the compromise legislation, the state central fill program was created. While there are other states that use pharmacy-like distributors for medical cannabis, this particular idea was unique to Utah. The concept falls more closely in line with the ideal distribution. However, there are two problems that have surfaced since the conception of this program: processing electronic payments for cannabis transactions and local health departments shared concerns about their involvement in distributing cannabis to patients. A central fill program cannot function without a means of distribution, thus the need to repeal the state central fill pharmacy.

In the original legislation last December, there were seven cannabis pharmacies in addition to the state central fill pharmacy. In order to still provide access to all patients across the state, we increased the number of licenses for private medical cannabis pharmacies from seven to 14. This number is not a cap. It is possible, if there is a need, to grant more licenses in the future. There will be one RFP from the Department of Health (DOH) for potential cannabis pharmacies. Eight of these licenses will be issued by March and the additional six will be issued by July 2020. Fourteen is sufficient to position in strategic locations around the state. Under the changes made this week, the Department of Health will be directed to divide the state into four quadrants and consider the number of licenses necessary to fill the needs of each area to ensure access is available throughout the state. 

Meeting Patient Needs

At the end of the day, the entire purpose of this effort is to get the medication in the hands of patients who are in need by March 1, 2020. 

We understand that there are patients throughout the state and even with 14 cannabis pharmacies, there are still patients in rural Utah who may struggle to access those pharmacies. To mitigate this concern, we included language to create an online portal where patients can get information and order medical cannabis online. Additionally, some of the cannabis pharmacies will contract with the DOH to provide a courier service option so medication can be delivered to the address of the cardholder and can be signed by the patient or their caregiver. 

Initially, only patients located far from pharmacies were able to have a 30-day supply of medical cannabis at a time, while everyone else was limited to a 14-day supply. This has now changed to allow all patients, if prescribed by their doctor, to have up to a 30-day supply of medical cannabis at a time. 

Since passing the legislation last December, it has come to our attention that some patients have had difficulty working with the courts. In the changes made this week, we added legal protections for patients who are lawfully using medical cannabis. Essentially, we want to see medical cannabis treated the same way as controlled substances in court proceedings, meaning a judge can no longer require a patient to stay off of their cannabis medication as part of a plea deal or ruling. Additionally, a parent will not have the threat of losing their children simply because they are lawfully and appropriately using medical cannabis.  

Preparing the Way for Cannabis Businesses

The biggest threat to the timeline in making medical cannabis available to patients is getting businesses through local government regulations for zoning with enough time to start growing to have product ready by March 1, 2020. To address this, we set a default on a state level that cannabis production is permitted and would be zoned in agriculture and industrial zones unless the local government designates a specific zone—but a zone must be available in all municipalities. This prevents local government from treating cannabis facilities differently from similar businesses.

In the original legislation, we allowed growers to grow indoors OR outdoors. It turns out that it didn’t make a lot of sense. We have adjusted the law to allow businesses to decide the most efficient way to grow.  Now growers can grow both indoor and outdoor. 

Research

Finally, we changed the law to authorize the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to license research universities to conduct medical cannabis research, like previously authorized industrial hemp research. While this does not directly impact patients receiving medication by March 1, this is a vital component of this law. Because cannabis is still illegal on a federal level, there are few, if any, robust studies on medical cannabis. If we are to better utilize cannabis for medicinal purposes, it is essential that we begin researching the benefits and effects of medical cannabis as it is used by patients throughout our state.

– Sen. Evan Vickers, bill sponsor of SB 1002, Medical Cannabis Amendments