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More fixes coming to Utah's medical cannabis program

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More changes are coming to Utah's medical cannabis program in a pair of bills in the state legislature.

Since voters approved medical cannabis in 2018 (and the legislature overrode the ballot initiative with a compromise bill), the state's program has slowly started moving forward. But the program has had issues, which lawmakers have tried to address in bills.

One bill follows an investigation by FOX 13 in 2019 that found qualifying patients struggling to find physicians willing to recommend medical cannabis. It's led to frustration and, in some cases, the creation of specialized medical cannabis clinics that can charge exorbitant fees because they are qualified to issue cards.

"There’s a limited number in the state. We were hearing cases of some of those physicians charging $600 an appointment," said Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 170. "This, as you can imagine, was becoming a concern of access."

Senate Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, have introduced a bill that would allow more health care providers to recommend cannabis for up to 15 patients. After that, they have to undergo specialized training and licensing through the state.

Rep. Ward told the Senate Health & Human Services Committee on Wednesday that it's designed to get physicians comfortable with recommending cannabis.

"I’ve talked to primary care physicians who’ve said, 'Look, we only have a few patients that are even interested. Why would we go through this hassle?' For them, this is the perfect scenario," said Desiree Hennessy, the executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition, a medical cannabis advocacy group.

At the beginning of the year, Utah law on medical cannabis changed and removed "affirmative defense" letters that patients could have that let them avoid a marijuana possession charge while they waited to get a state-issued medical cannabis card. Now, all patients must go through Utah's Department of Health for a card.

But combine that with the issue of physicians unwilling to undergo the training to recommend it, and it created a new problem.

"I’m the mother of a medical cannabis patient and I’m also the executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition who deals with this law every single day. As far as my family goes? Yeah, my son is back to being an illegal patient until his doctor becomes a [qualified medical provider]," Hennessy told FOX 13.

SB170 would fix that, she said. The bill got unanimous support from the committee and now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who is tasked in the legislature with running cannabis bills, said he is also proposing some more tweaks. A bill would extend the time that patients could bring back cannabis product from outside Utah, while at the same time pushing Utah-based dispensaries to get up and running.

Right now, the state has authorized 14 dispensaries (that lawmakers refer to as "pharmacies") but only seven have opened.

"If we give them a deadline of June 1, they can all be up and going including the ones down in St. George and Cedar," he told FOX 13.

There is no dispensary in southern Utah, and patients in that area often dash across the border to Mesquite, Nev., where medical and recreational marijuana sales are legal. Sen. Vickers said his pending bill would also look at allowing extra dispensary licenses in under-served rural parts of Utah and make modifications to streamline cannabis facilities from seed to sale.

"It leads to more efficiencies and hopefully it leads to lower costs for patients, too," he said.

Sen. Vickers acknowledged Utah's medical cannabis program has had some growing pains, but he said it is working.

"Is it perfect? No," he told FOX 13. "But we’re certainly moving that way and we’re getting a lot more patients. I heard 20,000 patients statewide."

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