Blowing Smoke? | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Blowing Smoke? 

Concerns abound on the medical cannabis compromise bill poised to pass in December.

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click to enlarge “You’re literally having the state become a drug dealer,” Christine Stenquist, seen here at TRUCE’s midterm election watch party, says. - RAY HOWZE
  • Ray Howze
  • “You’re literally having the state become a drug dealer,” Christine Stenquist, seen here at TRUCE’s midterm election watch party, says.

The soreness is constant, but it gets worse when the seasons change, and the plummeting temperatures mean more pain for Joshua Carrillo. Chilly weather makes the throbbing shoot from his legs into his spine and neck—an agonizing consequence of an October 2017 crash when an SUV launched him into the air after it hit his motorcycle. "Bro, I'm laid up since Halloween because of the cold," he says one mid-November morning. "I literally crawl up the stairs to get to my bed."

Relief might soon be on the way for people like Carrillo—those who have relied for years on medical cannabis to manage chronic pain or illness. Utah's path to legalizing the plant has been filled with twists, turns, complaints and compromises. A month before the Proposition 2 ballot initiative passed, state legislators, faith leaders, supporters and opponents gathered at the Capitol to unveil a compromise bill—a work-in-progress that lawmakers will reportedly iron out and approve at a Dec. 3 special session.

Carrillo likes the bulk of that agreement. "It's a step in the right direction," he says. "It's just not giving you exactly what the people voted for."

The compromise differs from the ballot initiative in several key ways. Gone is the controversial "grow your own" provision that would have allowed patients to cultivate up to six personal cannabis plants after January 2021 if they didn't live within 100 miles of a dispensary. Also changed is the means by which patients could obtain it. In Prop 2, they'd go to a local dispensary. Under the compromise's updated draft, card-holding Utahns could acquire medical cannabis from two different facilities: a local health department that received the medicine from a state-run "central fill pharmacy," or a privately operated dispensary.

There's concern the compromise offers fewer locations for pickup than if the ballot initiative became law. If Prop 2 were implemented, the number of dispensaries in a given area would be based on the population—in Salt Lake County, there'd be eight. In the proposed compromise version, the state would become a major distributor, and there could be a maximum of 10 private pharmacies across the state.

"That's nowhere near enough to meet what patient demand is going to be," Erik Altieri, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says. Alex Iorg, from the Utah Patients Coalition, tells City Weekly that between 50 and 200,000 people could be eligible for medical cannabis in Utah, depending on how difficult it is to attain a medical card.

Christine Stenquist is more blunt. "You're literally having the state become a drug dealer," the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) says. "Utah is basically giving the federal government the finger."

Conversely, Josh Daniels, a policy advisor to the Utah Patients Coalition—the group that led the ballot initiative and was involved in drafting the settlement legislation—stresses that the state would be involved in distributing, not growing, processing or dealing cannabis under the compromise. Both the central fill and private pharmacies would acquire the medicine from private cultivators and processors. "The state of Utah is basically volunteering itself to violate federal law for the sake of helping medical patients," Daniels says. "That's kind of impressive."

At his monthly news conference last week, Gov. Gary Herbert said he'd call upon Utah representatives in Congress to pass legislation that would ease federal restrictions on cannabis. "At least take it off the Schedule I list so we can have robust research, and do clinical trials and studies, and decide what in fact the science and research tells us how we can use, most effectively, cannabis as a medicine," Herbert said.

The governor also defended the compromise, arguing it addresses flaws in the ballot initiative that could inadvertently divert cannabis to the state's illegal drug trade. "I don't know why anybody would be opposed to this," Herbert said. "Is it perfect? Probably not, but that's why we have a public process that allows us to modify, improve, amend as we go forward. But we're in a good place here."

Herbert added he's willing to listen to any point of view that could improve the medical cannabis program, including tweaking the distribution model. "If we can make it better, we ought to make it better," he said. "Let's hear what your recommendations are and see if we can build some consensus. That's how you do legislation."

According to Altieri, Utah's handling of the matter is unprecedented among the more than 30 states that have legalized the substance for medicinal purposes. To his knowledge, no other states' politicians have tinkered with a medical cannabis program before voters weighed in on a ballot initiative. "It's never been this nearly full rewrite, weeks before people are set to vote on it," Altieri says. "It seems like the Utah Legislature is really trying to reinvent the wheel here."

Altieri's issues with the compromise are broad, but they all converge on the same idea: access. "Allowing patients to grow their own medicine is, in our opinion, crucial to a patient-centric program," he says.

Freedom to cultivate means pained or sickened Utahns don't have to travel to a private dispensary or health department in order to acquire their meds. It also spares cardholders from depending on the strains administered under Utah's watchful eye. "The state will water it down, just like they tried to do with alcohol," Carrillo says.

If it's that much trouble to acquire medical cannabis, Carrillo predicts those in need will go back to the black market. "If you can't get access to the medicine you need, you're going to go back to what you know and what you've always done."

Short of full-throated legalization, Altieri says NORML's ideal medical cannabis program is one that doesn't have a list of qualifying conditions, allows for patients to cultivate their own plants at home and permits a diverse retail distribution of an array of products that keep up with public demand. In other words, the opposite of the compromise bill.

"It seems like lawmakers there are overcomplicating a process just for the sake of overcomplicating it," Altieri says. "We have states that have had this for decades that we can look to as good models."

Like Carrillo, Stenquist's stake in patient access is personal—she's had to break the law for six years. Medical cannabis has helped her manage pain resulting from a botched brain tumor surgery. While she acknowledges that Prop 2 isn't perfect, she thinks the compromise undermines voters' voices, and isn't in the best interests of Utahns who need medical cannabis to live happier, healthier lives. "They're not just throwing out the baby with the bathwater," she says. "They're replacing the baby."

Carrillo's pain makes it tough to leave his South Salt Lake home. He didn't go to any parties on election night to celebrate Utah voters passing Prop 2. Scrolling through social media photos that evening, he noticed something about the people in the crowds: they looked healthy. It didn't seem to him like the they were the Utahns who need medical cannabis to cope with their suffering. Sick people, it seemed to Carrillo, were tied up that night. "Because of their medical conditions, they couldn't make it," he says. In witnessing the revelry secondhand, Carrillo's thoughts were with the potential Prop 2 beneficiaries, not the benefactors. "These are the people that need to be taken care of: the people that can't make it to these events."

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Kelan Lyons

Kelan Lyons

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