TAYLORSVILLE — Utah Department of Public Safety leaders promised Tuesday to do everything they can to ensure the rights of qualifying patients to possess medical marijuana are upheld in light of the new law in effect in the state.
Col. Michael Rapich of the department's Utah Highway Patrol said troopers are fully invested in ensuring all legal protections are honored for those who possess and use marijuana lawfully.
"Absolutely our intent is to make sure their rights are upheld, and they are able to do so," Rapich told the Deseret News in an interview at Department of Public Safety headquarters.
But Rapich also warned that the new legalization of medical marijuana in Utah does not give carte blanche to those wishing to use the drug. It is still illegal to possess or transport it in large amounts, and only patients with qualifying conditions can possess it at all, he reminded.
Even for such patients, there is no tolerance for driving impaired, he said.
"It's still illegal. We'll still aggressively pursue that," Rapich said.
He added that just as with any substance, a valid medical approval for having and using marijuana is not an effective legal defense against driving under the influence — a type of case highway troopers see "not infrequently."
"You can do that with cough syrup."
Rapich also noted that ignorance of requirements for marijuana use in the new law are no excuse for not abiding by them.
"If you're going to use medical cannabis … know what the rules are," he said. "I would hope that people are going to educate themselves."
This year, a highway safety official from Washington state warned public safety authorities in Utah that there is not a method of impairment testing for marijuana that is as forensically reliable as a blood-alcohol test for those who have been drinking.
However, the Utah Highway Patrol has said it already uses behavioral tests it believes are effective at detecting marijuana-induced impairment. Rapich reiterated that confidence Tuesday.
"We've been doing that a long time" he said. "There won't be a lot of changes this way."
Under the medical marijuana compromise bill, which was passed by the Utah Legislature on Monday to replace Proposition 2, patients with qualifying conditions whose doctor has recommended that they use the drug medicinally may already legally possess it in certain dosage forms without breaking Utah law.
That means eligible patients could go to neighboring Colorado or Nevada and bring medical marijuana into the state without violating Utah law.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said Monday that police might cite people for marijuana possession even under those circumstances, but if they can prove they were meeting the requirements, "you are not committing a crime."
Rapich reassured that, in cases where it isn't immediately clear whether a person found with marijuana possesses it legally as a patient, state troopers will do everything they reasonably can to determine whether that is the case. Law enforcement authorities understand not every case of a patient possessing marijuana legally will look exactly the same at first glance, he said.
"Every situation is evaluated differently. You do that with everything," Rapich said.
Asked whether there would be any increased patrols or enforcement near Utah's borders with Colorado and Nevada in light of the new law, Rapich said there is "nothing that we're currently doing" in that regard.
It isn't until 2020 that state-licensed cannabis pharmacies, medical cannabis cards issued to patients, and the state central fill dispensary become operational. Hughes said there is a "race to get the state system up and running" as soon as possible, which will help strengthen regulations on how a person can legally obtain marijuana and which patients are lawfully entitled to use it.
Rapich said the Department of Public Safety is working diligently to properly educate its rank and file on how to correctly apply changes to marijuana law in day-to-day situations.
"We're working with our legal counsel to identify, 'what does that mean for officers on the street,'" he said.
Rapich was asked whether there is anything in the new law which the department would like to see the Legislature address in order to make the work of law enforcement more tenable, to which he responded that there is "nothing that we're working on right now."
"There's a lot still to digest," he said, adding that everyone responsible for implementing the law, not only public safety officials, are still "learning together" how to do so.
Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Street said any fixes suggested to the legislature would stem strictly from issues identified using "a data-driven approach."
A pair of law enforcement industry groups — the Utah Sheriffs Association and Utah Chiefs of Police Association — spoke critically of Proposition 2 this year, but Utah police agencies themselves have been silent on the issue.
The Department of Public Safety itself also refrained from weighing in on the initiative, except to say in a statement on its website that while it "acknowledges that there is information supporting the clinical use of marijuana, DPS has some preliminary concerns regarding a more broadly defined medical use of marijuana in our state and the negative impact it could have on public safety."