SALT LAKE CITY — More than 100 Utahns showed up at a lengthy legislative committee hearing Monday to weigh in on the compromise medical marijuana bill state lawmakers are expected to consider next week to potentially replace Proposition 2.
The public hearing of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee is the last such meeting expected prior to the special lawmaking session set for next Monday.
With a packed crowd looking on at the hearing, including in an overflow room, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, spoke to committee members and took questions for nearly two hours about the contents of the replacement bill, which he is the sponsor of.
"This idea that something's being sabotaged, that something's being undermined, is just not the case," Hughes insisted to his fellow lawmakers. "There is no gutting of any proposition, there is no undermining of any will of the people."
Hughes said that the compromise bill, rather, zeroed in on "some of the unintended consequences" of Proposition 2, and pointed out that the changes made to it in the compromise have enjoyed the blessing of the Utah Patients Coalition, the campaign that collected signatures to get Proposition 2 on the ballot.
"No one got buyer's remorse in the process," he said.
Hughes added that "we also wanted to make it politically stronger, and not susceptible to changes that could undermine patient access" in the future, implying getting some of Proposition 2's naysayers on board with the new bill would help with that.
The large majority of speakers who addressed the committee identified themselves as patients or family members of patients who could benefit or previously benefited from using medical marijuana. Some pro-Proposition 2 advocates also spoke.
In their remarks, those speakers were overwhelmingly supportive of Proposition 2 and skeptical of both the proposed compromise bill's contents and its role in superseding what was passed by Utah voters. Monday's meeting lasted around five hours, including about two hours of public comment.
"This is not a compromise piece of legislation. It is a capitulation to the opponents of Prop. 2," said Rocky Anderson, an attorney and former Salt Lake City mayor. "It will defeat several of (its central) objectives."
Anderson, who has previously warned of potentially filing a lawsuit over the compromise bill, said it was "outrageous" for that measure to remove the part of Proposition 2 which allows all diagnosed autoimmune disorder patients to qualify for a medical cannabis card.
Anderson also believes the changing of the ballot initiative's language, making it so that doctors "prescribe" a medical cannabis card rather than "recommend" one, is a "fatal flaw" in the compromise bill.
He said it "would leave physicians vulnerable" to losing their prescribing licenses because of a federal distinction between recommending the use of a substance and formally prescribing it.
Hughes later told the committee the use of the word "prescribe" is defined in the bill as a less binding recommendation, rather than a prescription as federally understood.
Christine Stenquist, founder of the pro-Proposition 2 advocacy group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, said the compromise bill is impractical in some areas because of its interactions with federal regulations, including how financial transactions are set up under the measure.
"The replacement bill is not what you think it is," Stenquist warned the committee.
Doug Rice, president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah and an outspoken supporter of Proposition 2, said the compromise bill inappropriately micromanages how qualifying Utah patients can access and use medical marijuana.
"Sometimes you need to let adults be adults," Rice said.
Hughes told the committee that, in crafting the compromise bill, "we don't want to over-regulate … (or) infringe or eliminate patient access." He said he feels good about standing by the product that was before the committee Monday, and what went into creating it.
"This is one of the most exhaustive legislative efforts I've ever been a part of and one I think we can be proud of," Hughes said.
Hughes said he also didn't buy the idea that "the only people who voted for Proposition 2 are only those who are diametrically opposed to the agreement."
"That just isn't the case," he said.
Multiple speakers in the public comment period later took issue with that statement, saying they didn't want their support for the contents of Proposition 2 itself being misconstrued.
Though they were in a small minority, a handful of speakers told the committee they felt the compromise bill was too permissive and needed adjustments making it stricter.
One such speaker was Gayle Ruzicka, president of conservative advocacy group Utah Eagle Forum, who wanted to see more done that would curtail youth access to marijuana products with the plant's psychoactive ingredient, THC, which she said has been shown to be harmful for young and developing brains.
At the least, Ruzicka suggested, it ought to be required that a minor try products without THC, such as CBD oil, before a doctor can recommend a product containing THC.
A small handful of speakers also told the committee they were relatively satisfied with the compromise.
Hughes also took questions from the committee about how landlords, renters, businesses, commercial marijuana growers, local zoning officials and others would be affected by the compromise bill. He indicated the bill would be reviewed prior to the legislative session for potential adjustments that may be considered needed after Monday's hearing.
Proposition 2 was approved this month by 52.75 percent of Utah voters. However, in October, Gov. Gary Herbert announced he would call a special legislative session late this year to pass a compromise replacement bill whose tenets had been agreed to by major players in the debate over the ballot initiative. Legislative leaders also promised to do everything they could to get the compromise passed.
The groups that agreed to support the contents of the compromise bill and de-escalate campaign efforts were, on the pro-Proposition 2 side, the Utah Patients Coalition initiative campaign and Libertas Institute, and on the side opposing the ballot initiative, the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.