SALT LAKE CITY — Bipartisan bills introduced on Utah's Capitol Hill expand the state's medical cannabis program, winning overall support from patient advocates.
"I was telling patients, 'Look, these are decent bills,'" said Christine Stenquist, the head of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Advocates (TRUCE). "Because they were posting, 'Tell me what I’m supposed to hate.' I’m like, nothing yet! Nothing yet! Which is wonderful. We’ve come a long way since 2014."
Stenquist, who was an original sponsor of the citizen ballot initiative that legalized medical cannabis in Utah has criticized the state-run program in the past. But she said progress has been made in the latest bills.
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring Senate Bill 195. The bill allows medical cannabis to be used for acute pain post-surgery; allows children who are card-holders to receive doses at school from a nurse; allows cannabis for hospice, among other things.
"Patients being able to go and access medical cannabis after surgery instead of opiates is a win for all of Utah with our opiate crisis," said Desiree Hennessy, the executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition.
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is sponsoring Senate Bill 190, which handles more regulatory measures for the cannabis industry. The bill includes labeling and advertising restrictions; allows midwives to recommend cannabis; expands cannabis cards to terminally-ill patients; and bans synthetic THC known as "Delta 8."
Synthetic THC has been prohibited in Utah before, but it has emerged as an "over-the-counter" type product. With the bill, the legislature is reaffirming its prohibition to it.
"Somebody’s always pushing the envelope," said Sen. Vickers. "That’s kind of what’s happened. That envelope is being pushed so we’re trying to rein it back in."
The patient advocates have mixed views on it. The Utah Patients Coalition supports Delta 8, while TRUCE opposes it.
"This extraction process was a health concern for the public and we felt standardization needed to be in place," said Stenquist.
In a series of bills, the legislature has declared that medical cannabis should be treated no differently than any other prescription drug. However, there is one glaring exception.
Sen. Vickers said while first responders can have access to cannabis — police officers still cannot. It's because of a complicated issue around federal laws and guns (because cannabis is still illegal on a federal level).
"The recommendation in the bill right now is that a first responder, other than law enforcement, could be a medical cannabis card holder and a patient, but they cannot use the product within 12 hours of going on a shift," Sen. Vickers told FOX 13 News.
Hennessy said overall, they are making progress with the cannabis bills.
"This is a year where we’re evaluating what we have, seeing how we can make it work better," she said.
Sen. Escamilla described Utah's medical program as "a baby program" still getting going. Lawmakers want to see the impact of expanding access to cannabis through bills previously passed.
"We're making sure again patients are having access like they were meant to be based on the program we created here from policy," Sen. Escamilla said.