SALT LAKE CITY — Two cannabis-related bills promoting in-state research of the plant and access to terminally ill patients were passed out of the House Health and Human Services Committee with a favorable recommendation Wednesday, following an hour of debate.
The measures, both sponsored by Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, were favorably recommended to the House floor despite opposition voiced during the committee hearing from cannabis advocates and law enforcement alike — though those groups were resistant to the bills for different reasons.
The Utah Medical Association offered support of the research measure, with caveats, but cautioned that the so-called "right-to-try" bill isn't "quite ready."
"It's an issue that's not going to go away anytime soon," Daw told the committee. "Hopefully as we move this through the process, we'll make good policy."
Daw's bills that were recommended are HB195, which would legalize the use of certain types of medical cannabis care for patients who are terminally ill; and HB197, which would allow the state Department of Agriculture to oversee the growing of full-strength cannabis in Utah for academic research in an effort to speed up the study approval process.
If passed, HB197 would have the Department of Agriculture contract with a third party to oversee the growing and processing of full-strength cannabis in the state. The bill would also establish a designated state dispensary by July 1, 2018, which would sell cannabis products to organizations (or hospice patients described in HB195).
The state would also be allowed to contract with a courier to securely transport cannabis to purchasers.
The bill was recommended by the committee by a 7-2 tally, with Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, being the only dissenting votes.
"I feel like this is a measured, good step forward for today," said Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, who voted to recommend the bill.
Ogden Police Chief Steven "Randy" Watt came out against the bill, saying "we'd just like to go on the record that we are opposed to this fundamental principle of violating federal law."
Watt described ignoring federal law in favor of state policy as a recipe for disorder and confusion, comparing it to municipal police departments ignoring aspects of state law.
Justin Arilla, an industry liaison for Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, an organization that supports full medical cannabis legalization, told the committee that the science behind HB197 is shaky with regard to how it would have cannabis grown in Utah.
"Nobody grows research quality cannabis from seed anymore," Arilla said. "(The bill doesn't) really have a clear understanding of how that's done."
TRUCE released a point-by-point analysis this week opposing all of Daw's cannabis legislation, saying they weren't well thought through, placed arbitrary restrictions on physicians and patients, and didn't do enough to move Utah toward broader patient access to cannabis.
The Department of Agriculture, the Sutherland Institute, and the Utah PTA were among those who testified to committee members in favor of HB197, casting it as a pragmatic measure helping to promote a fuller understanding in Utah of cannabis' medicinal properties.
Calls for more research are the main refrain from those who oppose the Utah Patients Coalition ballot initiative, which would give patients suffering from certain conditions wide access to the cannabis plant if passed by voters in November. Those calling for more studies include the Utah Medical Association, Gov. Gary Herbert, Daw and conservative think tank Sutherland Institute.
Melissa Ure, senior policy analyst for the Department of Agriculture, said she believes the bill gives her agency the right tools to fully ensure the growing of cannabis would be done the right way.
"Our position is: Please give us the authority and the tools to regulate this product as effectively as possible," Ure said. "We feel that we have everything we need (in this bill) to grow product that will be safe … for the public."
Michelle McComber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, offered support for the ideas in HB197 but was quick to add that she was still reviewing last-minute changes made to it earlier Wednesday.
If HB195 were to pass, it would allow certain cannabis extracts to be used as a treatment option for terminally ill Utahns whose condition is found under Utah law to "pose a greater risk to the patient than the risk posed to the patient by treatment with an investigational drug."
Under those circumstances, the bill would allow a physician or advanced practice registered nurse to recommend up to a one month supply of cannabis for a patient.
Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, said he was grateful for what he called the large degree of latitude the bill allows doctors and nurses in making those decisions by not being too cumbersome in defining, on behalf of those medical professionals, what constitutes a terminal illness.
"(It) gives a lot of leeway to physicians," Redd said.
McOmber expressed a higher degree of concern with HB195, saying the Utah Medical Association doesn't "think it is in any way quite ready for prime time yet."
Daw is addressing concerns over bill provisions that could endanger doctors' prescribing licenses, she said, but her organization was still poring through what to do about other parts of the measure, including some that were updated as of Wednesday.
Tom Paskett, policy director for TRUCE, said the organization finds it "difficult to support any legislation that leaves patients out of the loop," only benefitting those who are terminally ill.
"The fact that we leave (out) patients that are not suffering from conditions ultimately leading to their death, we find that problematic, and we'd ultimately be opposed to that," Paskett told the committee.
TRUCE this week also questioned why Daw's bill doesn't provide that cannabis given to terminally ill patients can be smoked or vaporized, which the organization said can offer quicker pain relief. Daw said Tuesday that those were not provided for in HB195 because "those aren't medical delivery systems."
"It's a medical bill," he said.
Paskett also raised concerns about a provision limiting the number of terminally ill patients — 15 being the maximum — that a medical professional is allowed to prescribe cannabis to. He said that could be problematic for physicians or nurses who specialize in hospice care or oncology.
Daw said he's open to looking into raising the limit on prescriptions given out to patients per doctor.
HB195 was recommended by an 8-3 margin.