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New Utah marijuana bill clarifies that private employers don’t need to allow its use

Medical marijuana advocates split on the issue

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Randy Gleave, general manager at Tryke Companies Utah in Tooele, talks about the marijuana plants at the company’s medical cannabis cultivation facility in Tooele on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. Lawmakers are discussing some changers to the state’s medical cannabis laws.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Proposed changes to Utah’s medical marijuana law would clarify that private employers are not required to accommodate the use of cannabis products, nor are they barred from having policies restricting it.

And some medical marijuana advocates — citing the importance of Utah allowing businesses to run the way they choose — say they’re OK with it, while others question why the plant will be treated differently than any prescribed medication.

“Personally, certainly, I would be concerned if any company is taking any adverse action against a patient using their medicine, but our goal is to see that changed just through education and awareness rather than forcing them to change through the law,” said Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, which worked on medical marijuana ballot initiative Proposition 2 and the compromise bill that replaced it.

“When we did the negotiations over Prop. 2, and even in Prop. 2 itself, we never sought to compel private businesses to allow the use of cannabis by their employees. As a free-market organization ourselves, we wouldn’t want the government to coerce companies in that way, and so we thought it proper to keep the policy that way,” Boyack said.

SB121 sponsor Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, also said the original bill didn’t require private employers to accommodate medical marijuana use, but that wasn’t clear enough in the law’s language. He said the exemption hasn’t seen pushback from advocates, but private employers had reached out to ensure it is clarified.

SB121, which is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee at 8 a.m. Tuesday, does require government employers to allow their employees to use cannabis. Under the law, public employees can’t face ramifications for medical marijuana use unless they are impaired at work.

Christine Stenquist, president of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, said her group “absolutely opposes” the bill not requiring private employers to allow use.

“What other medication or medical treatment is subject to employers’ scrutiny?” she asked in a statement to the Deseret News, explaining that Utah officials are ensuring cannabis is managed as a medication.

“It’s entirely inappropriate for an employer to impose their opinion on an employee’s medical treatment,” Stenquist said. She hopes that as the program rolls out the culture will move toward “acceptance instead of resistance.”

Desiree Hennessy, executive director of Utah Patients Coalition, said she hopes private employers will “follow suit” with what public employers are already required to do in letting employees use medical marijuana. But Hennessy agreed that Utah doesn’t want to “step on the toes of private employers.”

“We tried to honor that in this,” she said.

As an advocate for medical cannabis, Hennessy explained that she would like employers to be required to let their employees use medical marijuana, but she doesn’t understand what private employers each face.

“The best we can do is educate and advocate,” Hennessy said. Her group is working to help people understand testing, as well as how cannabis and the cannabis metabolite works.

The coalition has worked with employers who don’t allow medical marijuana, sometimes talking to those employers or giving the patient information to pass along that solves the issue, Hennessy said. But 50% of time, employers are still “absolutely not” OK with their employees having THC in their systems.

Hennessy believes the issue will work itself out as private employers see how state employers handle it. Even so, there will always be employers who say “absolutely not,” which she called unfortunate.

“It’s still (private employers’) business,” however, and Utah wants to honor that, according to Hennessy.

Boyack expressed optimism that most patients won’t be impacted. Few companies require regular drug testing, he said, other than those where employees operate vehicles and it becomes a safety issue.

“We think that the cultural awareness is definitely shifting,” he said.

Doctor caps, marijuana packaging

Boyack and Hennessy both praised other aspects of SB121.

Among larger tweaks, it would remove a requirement that raw marijuana flower be packaged in blister packs, allowing raw flower be sold in other sealed containers with expiration dates listed.

The bill would also exempt medical marijuana users from a prohibition on carrying a dangerous weapon, and raise the number of patients to whom a program-approved physician can recommend cannabis from 300 to 600. It also changes dosing “parameters” to dosing “guidelines” to allow doctors more flexibility in how they prescribe the medicine.

While Stenquist said her advocacy group sees some positive steps forward in the new bill, it still has concerns. Those concerns include having any caps on the number of patients doctors can recommend marijuana to, and doctors’ role of signing patients up for the medical marijuana program while marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

“Utah law comes much closer to asking doctors to essentially prescribe a particular course of cannabis treatment — including cannabis types and amounts — than the laws in nearly any other state that we know of,” Stenquist said.

Making doctors responsible for enrolling patients into the cannabis program could create legal troubles for doctors, Stenquist said.

“Whereas in California, doctors only sign a simple statement saying that they believe their patients could benefit from medical cannabis. That statement is then taken to an organization which vets that the doctor in fact made the statement and that the doctor is in good standing, and then a third organization actually enrolls the patients,” Stenquist said.

She also expressed concern that those people who own firearms while using marijuana will also be breaking federal law, and with the expiration dates that will be ascribed to the raw cannabis flower.

Stenquist said those legal expiration dates would create “an entirely new victimless crime based on ‘expiring medical cannabis bottles.’ This carries the whole dubious proposition of ... having the ‘expired medicine’ on a patient’s person out of their home will result in their having committed a violation.”

But Stenquist said the group believes progress will be made over the coming years, and others agree the steps are positive.

“We think a lot of these changes continue to improve upon the medical cannabis program and provide patients a number of improved access opportunities and protections so that they can use this medicine. The goal is to get this bill passed and signed into law this month so some of these legal changes can take effect before the program launches next month,” Boyack said.

Correction: A previous version quoted Stenquist as saying her organization opposed limiting the number of prescriptions one doctor can give out. She actually said she opposes the law capping the number of patients to whom a doctor can recommend marijuana, as the law allows for recommending and not prescribing.