Rocky’s Way
(Or the Highway)

medical marijuanaFormer Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Proposition 2 supporters that could bring both efforts to legalize medical marijuana—Proposition 2 and the replacement bill, H.B. 3001—crashing down.

Anderson is asking Utah’s Third District Court to restore Proposition 2’s larger, market-led system that resembles dozens of other states and relies on a widespread private market to handle the illicit plant.

He argues the Legislature has taken too much power from the people. He also claims the Legislature does the bidding of the LDS Church, which he says has unconstitutionally “dominated” the process around the issue.

Anderson is working on a third claim that will target a vulnerable piece of the Legislature’s law. He says the law forces state and local employees to violate federal law by working in cannabis facilities.

“That to me is an absolute sure winner,” Anderson says. “For the Legislature to compel anybody to distribute cannabis is absolutely in conflict with federal law.”

Anderson sent a letter in February to more than 100 county officials, searching for a possible plaintiff to join his case. It reads like a threat: “Every dollar spent and every minute devoted to planning for the implementation of H.B. 3001 is an utter waste of precious resources because the law will never—can never—be put into operation.”

Carol almost died last year in a car crash. She uses medical marijuana as part of her pain management plan while her shattered bones heal. The 48-year-old from Weber County fears she’ll lose her job if she uses her real name. So we’ll just call her Carol. After the near-fatal car crash, her friends convinced her to try cannabis as part of her pain management plan.

She’s hoping she’ll be approved for surgery soon, but for the foreseeable future, Carol has been prescribed hydromorphone, a strong opioid medication. Cannabis products—in her case, low-THC-level droplets—help mitigate her need for the opioid and she’s been getting them from Colorado. 

“My doctor said that it helps make me more sensitive to opioids so that I can use less. I’ve been using significantly [fewer opioids] since starting to use [marijuana],” she says. 

Carol is aware of the dangers of opioid addiction, and cannabis has helped her avoid it. But getting cannabis from Colorado is difficult and, right now, a legal liability. And as she’s run out of her droplets, she’s started to take more opioids again to deal with her pain.

Last November, in a state where conservative elected leaders have mightily resisted legalizing the plant, citizens fought to create a medical marijuana program through a ballot initiative. A majority of Utah voters passed Proposition 2, allowing certain people to use medical cannabis and authorizing the establishment of state-licensed and controlled dispensaries. 

But then, state leaders and lawmakers quickly huddled to write a new law to supplant the initiative voters passed.

The resulting bill is unlike any other medical marijuana program in the country. It strictly limits access to a centralized state distribution system for a small number of private dispensaries that the law requires be designed to function like pharmacies. You won’t find any “bud tenders” named Blaze behind a Utah cannabis counter.

Meanwhile, patients in limbo have been asking doctors to write permitting letters to shield them from prosecution. Carol says her doctor is on board with her cannabis use but is afraid of writing her a letter until Utah’s medical marijuana program is assembled. There are too many unknowns, and many doctors are afraid to get involved with the federally illegal plant.

Further muddying the picture, law enforcement agencies are scratching their heads over how to respond to a marijuana bust where the suspect claims medicinal purposes but has no way to prove it. And, the law already faces a legal challenge that threatens to make even more changes and possibly reinstate Proposition 2. (See sidebar: “Rocky’s Way (or The Highway.”) 

These are the growing pains of a nascent medical marijuana program being rolled out by a reluctant state government. Patients are caught in the fog of uncertainty.

Without dispensaries in place under the new Utah Law, patients like Carol will continue buying cannabis locally the old fashioned way, through illegal dealers, or taking trips to neighboring Colorado or Nevada. On the return trip they’ll face the possibility of getting pulled over by the wrong police officer in Utah. 

While it would have taken time for a program under Proposition 2 to get up and running, the citizens’ initiative was much less restrictive than the replacement law. Patients fear that even if and when the replacement law is up to speed their access will be limited. The Legislature called for seven to 10 private dispensaries in the entire state.  Under Prop 2, it was to open eight privately run dispensaries in just Salt Lake County and at least one in every county in Utah. Arkansas, for example, has a similar population to Utah and allows 32 dispensaries. 

But the new law’s supporters say despite the hiccups it’s on the right track. 

“Everybody wants the program to work,” said Connor Boyack, an early Proposition 2 supporter and founder of the Libertas Institute, who later worked on the Legislature’s replacement law. “Whatever issues may present themselves … we’re confident that we’ll be able to work through those issues as they arise.” 

Among cannabis advocates, so few outlets is a major sticking point.

“There are supposed to be 7-10 dispensaries [and] they have to have a pharmacist on duty,” said Christine Stenquist, founder of TRUCE, the group that supported Prop 2 but didn’t agree to a compromise. “Seven dispensaries for a state this large is ridiculous…some of these counties are really, really huge. Who can drive two hours round trip for medicine?”

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