Utah is considering new ways to distribute medical marijuana amid growing scrutiny from county attorneys who argue a planned state-run dispensary system would put public employees at risk of being prosecuted under federal drug laws.
On Tuesday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Davis County District Attorney Troy Rawlings said current plans to use local health departments throughout the state as pickup points for medical marijuana would make the employees de-facto drug dealers.
Marijuana is still banned at the federal level, though a congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states that have them.
But some district attorneys said distribution is still risky. “There’s no exemption for a state employee to distribute marijuana,” Rawlings said.
More than 30 other states allow medical marijuana in some form. But none have state-run dispensaries because they fear the potential legal fallout, said Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based pro-legalization advocacy group. Utah’s proposal is unique and, if successful, could set a precedent for other states, he said.
Advocates who pushed for last year’s voter-approved law legalizing medical marijuana in Utah said they are pleased the state may go back to the plan outlined in the ballot initiative for a network of private dispensaries.
That was scrapped when Utah lawmakers made sweeping changes to the ballot measure, and built in the distribution system that uses local health departments.
The current plan allows for seven private “cannabis pharmacies,” with a state-run “central fill pharmacy” distributing the remainder of medical marijuana orders through each of the state’s 13 local health departments.
Medical marijuana will be available for purchase only by patients with certain medical conditions. Residents can buy the drug at one of the state-selected dispensaries after obtaining a patient card from their medical provider.
Desiree Hennessy, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, the main medical marijuana advocacy group that backed the ballot initiative, said she’s grateful legislators are recognizing issues with distribution and finding new ways to make it work. In light of counties resisting the “central fill” concept, Hennessy said she will push state officials to provide more private dispensaries to help distribute the drug.
“We didn’t think a central fill was going to be successful, and now that state officials realize that, we can work toward a plan that works … prioritizing private dispensaries,” she said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers said the goal of the central-fill pharmacy was to reach patients in rural communities.
He said state leaders have been hearing prosecutors’ concerns for months and are exploring alternatives. Possible solutions include modifying how cannabis would be delivered to local health departments, cutting counties out of the distribution process, and replacing the state’s “central fill” system with an additional privately owned dispensary.
State officials are expected to meet later this month to discuss and enact changes to the law.
House Democratic leaders blasted legislators for making changes to the initial ballot measure.
“The Legislature cannot override the will of the voters with failed plans and hope to maintain any kind of trust with the people we are supposed to represent,” the Utah House Democratic Caucus leadership said in a Tuesday statement.
Gill, Salt Lake County’s district attorney, said he’s confident state officials will craft a new distribution plan that excludes local health departments.
“Whatever solution they come up with, frankly I don’t care, as long as it gets medical cannabis to patients and removes us from the equation,” he said.
Utah’s medical cannabis program is set to open next year but has run into other obstacles. Two advocacy groups, Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah are suing the state over changes made to the medical-marijuana ballot initiative.