Despite taking 24 pills every day to manage central nervous pain syndrome and her prescription medications’ side effects, Debra Jenson knows she’s lucky—she has a full-time job, health insurance, an understanding partner and a physician she trusts. There are many people who don’t have those privileges, she told the state’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Monday. “So, I’m here for those people,” Jenson said. “For every extra mile you add to where we can pick up our meds, for every extra layer of red tape you add when we go visit our doctors, for every extra question about where we have to go to, you are adding to our agony. You are adding stress to our lives, which then adds to our pain. You are shortening our lives.”
Jenson was one of the roughly 350 people gathered at the Capitol’s Senate Building for the interim committee hearing. Almost 70 members of the public were slated to give their thoughts on the “Utah Medical Cannabis Act,” (UMCA) better known as the “cannabis compromise bill,” an agreement unveiled a month before voters passed the Proposition 2 ballot initiative. Should lawmakers pass the UMCA at a Dec. 3 special session, it would supersede Prop 2, a reality that many critics spoke out against during the hearing.
“This so-called compromise does seek to undermine democracy,” attendee Kelly Jones said, stressing that her fellow Utahns knew what they were doing when they passed Prop 2. “They voted, I voted. We know the meaning of our vote.”
House Speaker Greg Hughes said the amount of time lawmakers, Prop 2 supporters and opponents have spent on writing, revising and taking public comment on the compromise bill is “one of the most exhausting legislative efforts” he’s ever been a part of. Defending the UMCA, Hughes stressed that the votes cast in favor of Prop 2 were not rejections of the compromise agreement. The UMCA, he said, is the result of an ideologically diverse group of stakeholders finding common ground that preserves the core of the ballot initiative. “This idea that something’s being sabotaged, that something’s being undermined, is not the case,” Hughes said. “There is no gutting of any proposition. There is no undermining the will of the people. It is just not happening.”
Critics of the compromise contend it will be harder for patients to access their medicine than if Prop 2 were to become law. Under the UMCA, card-holding Utahns would acquire medical cannabis from either a local health department—which would receive the medicine from a state-operated “central fill pharmacy”—or a privately owned pharmacy. Lawmakers increased the number of private pharmacies in the latest iteration of the compromise released on Nov. 21. “We have seven to start, we could go to 10 if the central fill model is not up and running by the dates anticipated in the bill,” Hughes said at the hearing. That date is Jan. 1, 2021.
The distribution system would be different if Prop 2 were to become law. Per the ballot initiative, patients would go to a nearby privately operated dispensary. The number of dispensaries in a given area would be based on population—in Salt Lake County, for example, there would be eight.
Many of the people who spoke at the hearing suffer from debilitating pain or illness. Heidi Clark lives with complex regional pain syndrome, a debilitating chronic illness she said is often linked to suicide. Crying, Clark asked the state senators to honor the ballot initiative passed by voters. “I voted for Prop 2. I read the entire thing. It’s what I want. It’s what will help me,” she said. Clark then warned the compromise would make medical cannabis too costly for many Utahns, forcing them to return to the black market. “We can’t afford what you’re proposing.”
Not all of the people who spoke were against the UMCA. Charity and Sean Peterson each talked about their experience helping their 5-year-old son with his epilepsy. The Petersons opposed Prop 2 because they worried it would threaten public safety, but said they’re encouraged by the public discussion on medical cannabis. “I am so grateful that we are finally kind of coming to our senses and recognizing that marijuana is on this earth for a reason,” Charity said. Acknowledging the new bill isn’t perfect, Charity urged Utahns to call their elected representatives and make their voice heard before the act becomes law. “Let’s make conversation, because this is important,” she said.