SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers will meet in a special session later this month to deal with legal concerns some counties have raised over dispensing medical marijuana in the state.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued the call for the session Thursday. It will be held Sept. 16, the same day the Legislature is scheduled to hold monthly interim meetings.

“My administration is dedicated to ensuring that quality, medical grade cannabis products are accessible to patients by March of 2020,” Herbert said in a statement. “Removing the requirement for a state central fill pharmacy will provide efficient and timely distribution of this substance for those who need it.” 

Utah voters approved a ballot initiative last November legalizing doctor-approved cannabis treatment for certain health conditions. State lawmakers the next month replaced the measure with a law they say puts tighter controls on the production, distribution and use of the drug.

Some counties have expressed concern about possibly facing federal retribution by being involved in Utah’s marijuana distribution system. Both Salt Lake and Davis counties’ top attorneys advised their county health departments against dispensing medical marijuana once the network is up and running.

The proposed bill would do away with the state-run central pharmacy and local county health department pickups. It would increase the number of privately owned medical cannabis pharmacies to 12 and allow home delivery.

Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, is among medical marijuana advocates who have continued to meet with legislators, including Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, to ensure the program is implemented quickly and successfully. Vickers co-sponsored the bill that replaced the voter-approved medical cannabis law.

“The consensus proposal we have worked on with Sen. Vickers will amend the law to address these issues and make the program more patient-friendly in a variety of ways,” Boyack said.

The bill would also increase patient protections in response to several court cases Libertas and the Utah Patients Coalition have been involved with where they say prosecutors and judges are “ignoring or undermining” the law, he said. Also, an online portal would be created under the proposed changes for patients to manage their accounts, make online purchases and get information.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, agree lawmakers need to change the law before the general legislative session starts in January.

Adams said legislators would discuss and hear public comment on the issues before taking any action.

“Special sessions provide part-time lawmakers an opportunity to make needed changes to complex legislation in a way that best serves our community,” Wilson said.

The Legislature also will consider changing state liquor law regarding the transportation and storage of heavy beer. Lawmakers earlier this year raised the allowable alcohol content for beer sold in grocery and convenience stores from 3.2% by weight to 4%. The proposal would allow retailers to stock the product before the Nov. 1 effective date when it can be sold, rather than make deliveries after midnight on Halloween, according to the governor’s office.

Changes to Utah election law regarding the date of the 2020 primary election are also on the special session agenda. Political parties in the state asked to move the date from the fourth Tuesday in June to the last Tuesday in the month. Because there is a fifth Tuesday in June next year, parties would have more time to hold conventions.

The Legislature also will consider providing money to promote participation in the 2020 census, which the state’s leading demographer said would be a positive step toward ensuring an accurate count in Utah.

”I am grateful to see that the leadership in our state recognizes that we’re going to need to put some significant effort into getting a full enumeration,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. 

”When Utah was a very small, homogenous population, these sorts of counts weren’t that difficult,” Perlich added. Now, however, the state is more urban, with greater numbers of hard-to-count Utahns like college students and young adults, immigrants, babies, elders and those in poverty, she said. The 2020 survey will also be conducted largely online, Perlich noted, so those who don’t have internet access face a greater risk of not being included. 

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, pitched a $500,000 effort to promote participation in the survey during the 2019 legislative session, but her proposal failed to gain support. She said in June she planned to seek $1 million if a special legislative session were called. 

The special session agenda also includes:

  • Legislative approval of and appropriations for the settlement of lawsuits against the state.
  • Amendments to certain tax incentives regarding the review required by an independent certified public accountant and technical amendments.
  • Senate consent for appointments made by the governor.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Annie Knox