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Sen. Mark Madsen's medical marijuana bill fails in what he calls a 'kill committee'

SALT LAKE CITY — As the votes were called out one by one, Lissa Lander’s eyes filled with tears.

“I was angry. I was hoping. For a moment, I thought we had a chance," said Lander, a Sugar House mom who has complex regional pain syndrome so severe that she says even fabric makes her skin burn.

She was one of several patients who began to cry after a House committee voted 8-4 not to send a medical marijuana bill to the House floor Monday, instead picking a competing bill that is more limited in scope.

The decision effectively put an end to the battle that the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, has waged for more than a year to legalize medical cannabis for Utahns.

Madsen's bill, SB73, made it past several votes that many thought were impossible but came to a halt in the House Health and Human Services Committee, where Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said the bill had too many “potential problems.”

Afterward, a visibly frustrated Madsen apologized to supporters of his bill and said he was “disappointed and disgusted” by lawmakers.

"The purpose of the other bill was to torpedo mine," he said.

Madsen said opponents of his bill, like the Utah Medical Association, had relied “on fearmongering and duplicity" to tank it.

"We always knew. The committee was a kill committee," Madsen said.

Attention will now turn to SB89, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, which passed 7-5 after lawmakers voted for significant edits.

With three days left in the legislative session, changes are still being made.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said his substitue bill combines the broad patient access of Madsen's bill with the tight regulatory oversight in Vickers' bill.

The revised proposal would allow a limited number of prescribers to recommend medication with any ratio of CBD to THC for certain patients — something Madsen has fought for and Vickers has opposed.

CBD and THC are two of the roughly 80 active compounds in marijuana. Access to THC, which is the compound that causes the marijuana "high," has been at the center of the debates on the two medical cannabis bills.

Each health district — there are 12 in the state — will be limited to either one physician for every 200,000 people or two for each district, whichever is greater.

"I truly believe that this is a way to merge the bills," Spendlove said. "Those people that have valid needs and valid conditions, we can serve through this substitute, but it also gives us that protection from keeping the program from getting out of control."

The amended bill would also create two other classes of doctors who can recommend medications with low or medium doses of THC for specific conditions.

Spendlove said most patients would be covered under at least one of the three groups.

"Honestly, I can't think of anyone" who would be left out, he said.

Christine Stenquist, a patient advocate and executive director of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, said she still opposes the bill.

SB89 still doesn’t allow access to the other compounds in marijuana that have also been shown to have medicinal benefits, which were included in Madsen's bill.

The bill also limits the number of growing, processing and testing facilities to two each and requires growers to do their cultivating indoors.

Those requirements would raise the price of medical cannabis far above what patients could afford, Stenquist said.

"I'm frustrated because people in this state are going to think we've got medical cannabis in this state and we don't," Stenquist said. "It's a falsehood."

An emotional Stenquist said she felt she wasted "precious time" hoping the House would pass the bill after she had several positive conversations with House lawmakers.

The ballot initiative that her organization hoped to use — which would require collecting nearly 120,000 signatures by April 15 — is "just not feasible" anymore, she said.

Stenquist said she and other advocates may form a political action committee to put pressure on candidates in the next election cycle because "the problem boils down to politics."

"I trusted the process," Stenquist said. "I trusted our elected officials. Lesson learned."

Melissa Graham, a Type 1 diabetic who vomits up to a dozen times a day, said she would ultimately support Vickers' bill if it were the only choice.

“It would take a lot of effort and it would take a lot of jumping through hoops and red tape and stuff like that,” Graham said. “Would it help me? Eventually, yes. But it would take every doctor I have working on it.”

But Lander isn’t sure what her next step will be.

If Vickers' bill does pass, it will take 12 to 18 months until Utahns can actually get medical cannabis from dispensaries, by the senator's estimation.

“Telling a chronically ill patient to wait a year or two years — it’s an eternity,” Lander said. “It’s like a death sentence.”

She said she's worried “nobody’s going to take up this fight."

Madsen plans to retire from the Legislature after this year, a decision he said was made years ago.

Of his time on the Legislature, he said "good riddance."

"This state is better suited … to elected officials that want to rule, not represent," Madsen said.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he tried to make sure Madsen's bill got a fair hearing.

Hughes said after Madsen expressed concern to him that "minds had already been made up," he asked last week that the hearing be delayed until Monday to give Madsen more time to talk to members.

The speaker said he hoped Monday's hearing produced "good policy" by amending Vickers' bill to include some of what Madsen was seeking.

"We did work on a thorough process with real vetting. This was not a predetermined outcome. I got personally involved," he said.

Hughes said he trusted the members of the committee, which includes several doctors, to make a recommendation based on medical rather than political concerns. He said he still needs to review the amended bill, but could support it.

"For Sen. Vickers' bill, I am more inclined to vote for that now than ever before," the speaker said. "I know that Sen. Madsen's work has changed that bill. It's different because of the work he's done with that committee. And so I think that's a good thing."

If Vickers' bill makes it through the full House, it has go back to the Senate for approval.

Both opponents and supporters of the measure — including Vickers himself — say it'll be an uphill battle.

Vickers said the changes to his bill "pushed me a little farther than I want to go" and that he plans to make "more refinements" before the bill hits the House floor.

"Some of the exact things you've included in your substitute are some pilot projects that I expected to see us explore over the next year," he told Spendlove in the hearing. “You’re kind of upping that.”

Spendlove said he expects the House floor vote to be close.

"For some people, it may be pushing them a little too far," he said. "There may be some amendments to the bill on the floor to try to pull it back a little bit, but we're definitely walking a tightrope."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche


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