SALT LAKE CITY — The question of medicinal cannabis first became visible to Melissa Butler through her work as a hospice nurse, when she discovered it had been making a difference in a pair of her patients.
But when a bill giving terminally ill patients access to cannabis for medicinal use passed the state Legislature this year, Butler didn't rejoice.
"I was actually disappointed that it passed, not because I don't want people to have access, but because I think (it) doesn't give people anywhere near adequate access," she said. "Once they're off of hospice, they won't have access to that. … (And) it's not just hospice patients that need it."
Butler is among a vocal group of Utah advocates who have made it clear they are done trusting the Legislature with the issue of medicinal cannabis, or aiming for compromise, instead preferring to cast their lot with a ballot measure which broadly legalizes medical use of marijuana and shows signs it could be popular enough to ultimately pass.
But the lawmaker who championed most of this year's medicinal cannabis bills believes his legislation represents nuanced steps that are far preferable to doing nothing, on the one hand, or engaging in a what he calls a careless effort at legalization that makes it difficult for police to enforce recreational marijuana laws, on the other.
"Now, am I (moving) as fast as the initiative folks want? No. Am I doing it faster than some folks in law enforcement want? Yeah, I am," Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, told the Deseret News during the legislative session. "And so we have to find that happy middle ground that says, 'Let's move this forward in a way that brings us all along.'"
Yet with advocates sensing the upper hand and seemingly disinterested in any compromise with state leaders that could endanger the initiative, the debate over medicinal cannabis is sure to extend well past the legislative session despite the passage of five cannabis-related bills this year.
This year's cannabis bills "really seemed like more service more than actual action … (that were) being floated out there as a way to undermine the ballot initiative," argues Butler, who was one of the five signatories on the ballot initiative application filed with the lieutenant governor's office last June.
"None of these bills really make any changes to access for the vast majority of people who need it," she said.
However, Daw has said he would like nothing more than to get medicinal cannabis into the hands of "every legitimate patient," but to do it "in a way that ensures patients are safe."
"My personal goal is: Anybody who has a legitimate need and would be legitimately benefitted, let's find a way to get them access," he said.
There was also talk among lawmakers during the session about a comprehensive bill to address medical marijuana legalization, potentially usurping the ballot initiative.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, even had a bill file opened that prepared for the possibility, telling the Deseret News last month, "I want to talk to people and say: What is an alternative? What is the best (thing) we can come up with?"
But no bill of that scope was ultimately introduced.
The Legislature passed the following five new medical cannabis policies:
• HB195 declares that a patient "who has an incurable and irreversible disease" as determined by a doctor and is likely to die within six months may legally obtain a recommendation from a doctor to use cannabis.
• HB197 instructs the Department of Agriculture to establish a contract with a third party to cultivate cannabis within Utah, a move supporters say would promote faster research in the state.
• SB130, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, seeks a federal waiver allowing doctors to issue recommendations to patients to get CBD oil via a pharmacy and also gives the state more regulatory authority over the product's distribution and sale.
• HB302 permits those who obtain a license to grow hemp products commercially. Hemp is related to the marijuana plant but contains extremely low levels of THC.
• HB25 makes changes to the makeup of a state-appointed board tasked with reviewing existing marijuana research and broadens the parameters of what types of studies the group is asked to examine.