Friday, February 19, 2016

Dueling Marijuana Bills Face Off at Legislature

Sen. Madsen's robust cannabis bill will be decided Monday

Posted By on February 19, 2016, 4:20 PM

Marijuana, THC, oils, brownies, getting high and smoking doobies were all words uttered in the Utah Senate chamber on Friday as lawmakers debated a pair of medical marijuana bills.

One of them, Senate Bill 89, received a favorable vote from the Senate, while the more robust of the bills, Sen. Mark Madsen’s Senate Bill 73, underwent some vigorous and emotional debate before being tabled until Monday.

While SB89 appears to have broad support in the Senate, the bill, which would make legal cannabidiol, a highly processed medication that lacks psychoactive levels of THC and would help only 10,000 to 20,000 Utahns, lacks the emotional bandwidth of Madsen’s bill.

Madsen, a Republican from Saratoga Springs, has aggressively pushed for medical marijuana—the whole entire marijuana plant—to be accessible to patients. So far, his efforts have drawn a rebuke from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a message that in the past has had the power to instantly bless a bill with a friction-free slip and slide through the process, or render it dead on arrival.

But Madsen’s bill has two very large things going for it: Rare is the legislator on Capitol Hill that hasn’t heard the gut-wrenching stories of Utahns who are demanding the right to use a substance that they say is the most effective at treating their ills, yet could land them a spot behind bars. And this growing chorus of Utahns, with Madsen as their bugler, has said that if the Legislature fails them, the ballot won’t.

Additionally, a woefully less restrictive and complete bill that Madsen ran on medical marijuana in 2015 failed to advance from the senate floor by a single vote. 

During the presentation to his Senate colleagues, Madsen said Utah has an opportunity to control how medical marijuana is dispensed through legislation—an option that will elude them if the issue makes it onto the ballot.

The ballot initiative process is difficult to navigate in Utah, forcing organizers to gather more than 100,000 voter signatures in each of the state’s senate districts. The last time an earnest effort was undertaken to accomplish this involved the Count My Vote initiative, which would have ended the state’s caucus and convention election system in favor of open primaries. So fearful was the Legislature of the County My Vote initiative that the body spent the better portion of the 2014 session cobbling together a compromise that remains mired in legal woes to this day.

And so there is some weight to Madsen’s claim that in Utah, lawmakers seem to prefer—and in the case of medical marijuana, should—hammer out the details in a venue where they have their hands on the levers.

One fear of a ballot initiative involving marijuana was articulated by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who said that a successful initiative could be more permissive than Madsen’s bill when it comes to using marijuana.

“I’m very concerned if we don’t pass this bill today that it will be an initiative,” Weiler said. “It will define the election cycle in Utah this year.”

Madsen, who began traveling to Colorado during the 2015 legislative session to use medical marijuana for his chronic back pain, told the Senate that it has no right to interfere with the medicine one chooses to use. And he asked why the Legislature thinks it has the right to tell him that he must continue to treat his pain with addictive opiates, which once briefly stopped his heart.

“My kids have to live with that peril, that they might again find their dad dead on the couch,” Madsen said. “There’s something better. Is it government’s role; is it your role, to make the decision for me and for my children as to what I can take into my body to help with the conditions that I’m struggling with in my life?”

While some lawmakers have urged caution on approving a medical marijuana bill because of a lack of scientific research surrounding the drug’s use, others said ample anecdotal and scientific research exists to warrant approval the drug in Utah.

Madsen conceded seven amendments to his bill, including one that gave more leeway to municipalities when determining where a dispensary could be located. The seventh, and most severe amendment, dealt with shedding the whole-plant philosophy that Madsen has fought for.

Now, instead of being able to buy a bud of marijuana and extracting the oil from the plant in one’s own kitchen—a process that Madsen says is required to ensure that costs remain low—the bill would only allow for processed oils to be sold.

The amendment narrowly passed, making it near certain that if Madsen’s bill does eventually find its way through the legislative landmines that lie before it, no one will be buying any raw plant material. The bill already forbids smoking marijuana—a process that Madsen says is wasteful and unhealthy. Far more effective, he says, is using the highly concentrated oils from the plant to treat pain, epilepsy, cancer and the long list of other ailments that proponents of medical cannabis insist it is good for.

Senators Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, Howard Stephenson, R-Draper and Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, gave impassioned testimony in support of Madsen’s bill.

Stephenson said that through three surgeries in the past 10 years, he’s been prescribed narcotics for his pain as if they were “candy.”

But Stephenson hasn’t dared take a single of the 180 Percocet pain pills that he now has stored in a safe because he fears addiction. “My father was an alcoholic and I’m afraid that I have a tendency for addiction,” Stephenson said. “I didn’t take a single one of them because I’m so fearful of being addicted.”

Stephenson said he visited a drug rehabilitation program at a jail and asked the 60 men there how many had become addicted to narcotics because of a doctor’s prescription. “More than a third of the hands went up,” Stephenson said. “It’s just a shame, I think, that we have that kind of thing going on in our society where one-third of the people in jail for this kind of abuse were first hooked on that drug by their prescriptions.”

Mayne urged her colleagues to take action. She said any lawmakers insisting that Madsen’s bill must be perfect needs to take a long look at the hundreds of imperfect bills the Legislature passes each year.

“We don’t know where we’re going, but we know we’re going nowhere if we don’t take control of what we have,” Mayne said. “We need to have control of this. We need to vote yes. We need to help those people that need this…” 

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