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Time runs out on medical cannabis bill, but it’s not over yet

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Posted at 6:39 PM, Mar 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-02 20:56:34-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that would allow for medical cannabis to be sold and used here in Utah was up for debate in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 259 was held after a quick debate Monday. Its sponsor, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, tried to call for a vote but other lawmakers wouldn't hear of it.

"I absolutely object to this being voted on right now," Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross said.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, pressed Sen. Madsen to circle the bill, which would hold it temporarily. Sen. Madsen reluctantly agreed to it.

"It pains me with 10 days left, but I realize, and I don’t know that I’m going to win any votes, but I realize the tactic here," he said. "We’ll circle it."

Sen. Madsen tried to quickly present SB259 to his colleagues, while he acknowledged that a substitute was coming that would answer many of their questions. The bill would allow for medical cannabis to be sold through licensed dispensaries, in only gummy or oil form.

"There are no tie-dyed T-shirts, no bongs," he said, insisting that it would not lead to recreational marijuana being legalized in the state.

People with ailments like cancer, AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder could be prescribed cannabis under the care of a licensed medical specialist.

On Monday, a fiscal note was attached to SB259 that said it would cost taxpayers nearly $8 million to set up. Sen. Madsen disputed that number, but said he believed that tax revenue could be gained by the sale of cannabis.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, had numerous questions about the bill. He asked about how "pain" was defined, and had concerns about zoning for dispensaries and other issues.

"The (Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing) may inspect medical cannabis establishment by appointment? I’m sorry, but DOPL comes in unannounced for good reason," Sen. Vickers said. "I would highly recommend you change that."

Sen. Madsen said many concerns would be addressed in a substitute bill he had drafted, which was expected to be unveiled soon. While it was circled, SB259 is expected to be brought back for debate on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The bill has caused much debate amongst lawmakers, especially after its sponsor revealed he had traveled to Colorado to take medical cannabis as treatment for chronic back pain. Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, told reporters on Monday that his Democratic colleagues had taken no position on it.

"As it is right now, I don’t think I would support it," he told FOX 13. "It depends on how it’s fine tuned and what the final would be before I make that decision."

House Republican leaders were also wrestling with the concept.

"My wife’s 92-year-old grandmother lobbied me heavily on this bill over dinner last night," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "She is an ardent supporter of Sen. Madsen’s bill. Grandma Alice told me I should get a clue."

Still, Hughes said he wanted to hear more about the bill from medical experts.

"It’s a tough issue for me to dive into and it feels more political than it does about medicine," he added.

House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he had several people close to him contact him and express their support for SB259. Asked if he would support it, Rep. Gibson told reporters: "I’m not a blanket 'No,' if that’s what you’re asking."