Cannabis advocates urge patience at Legislature

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Early on in the 2016 session of the Utah Legislature, medical cannabis advocates had good reason for optimism. No fewer than three bills and two resolutions related to the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons were up for discussion. The least of the bills would extend Utah's current program and at least keep the movement from taking a step backward.

Now the session is more than half over and the outlook for broader medical marijuana availability doesn't look nearly as good. A group of advocates called TRUCE announced this week they would give up on pursuing legislation and instead work toward getting an initiative on the November ballot. Erin Brown, a Park City resident and treasurer of the advocacy group Drug Policy Project of Utah, said her organization is not giving up on the Legislature just yet.

"Our state legislators have been and are currently engaged in a robust conversation about medical cannabis and have spent a significant amount of time becoming informed on this issue," she said. "The fact that there are five bills being considered by the Legislature this session is evidence that they are working hard on the issue of medical cannabis in this state."

Brown said the situation at the Capitol is not all gloom and doom. House Concurrent Resolution 3, brought by Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, tackles one of the most pressing issues facing the medical cannabis movement.

"The federal prohibition on cannabis-related research," she said. "This resolution urges the federal government to take steps in creating increased opportunities for researchers to engage in scientific inquiry into the medical efficacy of cannabis.

This would include reducing the long list of regulatory hoops and unnecessary burdens on researchers who desire to study the health impacts of cannabis."

Senate Concurrent Resolution 11, introduced by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Salt Lake City, is aimed at changing "draconian" drug laws.

"This resolution urges Congress to reschedule cannabis, from its current placement on the Schedule 1 list, to allow for increased research and study into its medicinal effects," Brown said. "This federal level change is critical to ensuring all the efforts on the state level are not in vain."

Those resolutions are in addition to the three bills: HB 58, which would extend Utah's current program; SB 73, which would establish a comprehensive medical cannabis program; and SB 89, a more modest proposal that would allow products with CBD (cannabidiol) but restrict THC content.

SB 73, proposed by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, suffered a perceived setback last week when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints came out against it. And Vickers' bill has critics even on the advocacy side, who say CBD-only medicine is not enough.

Brown said DPPU stands behind both proposals as meaningful steps forward and the group remains confident that the Legislature will support medical cannabis.

"What Senators and Representatives have continually called for is good research and data to support the claims made by advocates of medical cannabis," she said. "Last month we launched our Cannabis Medical Research Center where we are continually publishing research and policy analyses that provides peer-reviewed, gold standard research that our legislators are looking for to help them make informed, fact-based decisions.

"We're optimistic that with this research, legislators will take concrete steps to create a medical cannabis program in Utah. Their unanimous reauthorization of Charlee's Law (which gives epileptic children access to cannabis oil) earlier this month is proof that when public policy, human need, and community support are leveraged, positive steps can be taken."

Brown said the announcement by TRUCE and others this week that they would be seeking to put an initiative on the ballot this November is "a somewhat short-sighted endeavor."

"An initiative, carried out in such a short timeline, is a risky undertaking," she said. "DPPU is concerned that this move will lead to increased ill will among the most important stakeholders in this conversation and could have negative reverberations across other important drug policy related legislative efforts. Should the medical cannabis initiative pass, myriad legislative fixes will ultimately be required, yet the necessary support of those up at the Capitol might very well have evaporated."

Brown said her group would have preferred the ballot proponents waited to see how the legislative session played out.

"Neither SB73 nor SB89 have even had their second readings nor received votes on the Senate floor," she said. "We feel it is unfortunate that the legislative process has not been given a fair chance to play itself out. We believe DPPU can be the most effective and have the greatest and longest lasting impact working with our legislators to inform and advocate for a medical cannabis bill."

Having said that, Brown said the energy and enthusiasm she has seen building around medical cannabis is such that a ballot initiative, even one that would require gathering signatures in a very short timeframe, could be successful. She said DPPU will not, however, play a role in that effort.

"As a 501c3 nonprofit organization we will not be engaging in electoral politics or in this initiative, rather, we will continue our role of generating research and policy analysis and providing up-to-date information for our supporters and members," she said. "There are many organizations involved in this effort and we are thankful for their efforts."

Brown said DPPU has spent a great deal of time and energy forging relationships at the Legislature and thus, legislative change will continue to be the group's focus.

"We will continue to pursue legislation in this and subsequent legislative sessions as the need arises," she said. "We have been focused on developing relationships and forging ties with community partners and stakeholder organizations. We look forward to working with legislators in subsequent sessions to address other areas of our priorities in addition to medical cannabis."

Read this article on the ParkRecord.com.