The short history of legalizing medical cannabis in Utah is a fascinating tale of leveraging, backroom dealmaking and avoiding the inevitable.
In 2014, several mothers approached lawmakers to legalize a special oil (low THC, high CBD) to help dozens of their children legally get the oil they needed to reduce intractable seizures. Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, moved the bill through the legislature and while the final bill wasn’t exactly what the mothers wanted, it was acceptable. A backroom deal was struck in which the Utah House and Senate leadership agreed to support the bill if the mothers agreed not to come back the following year and petition to expand the law.
Lawmakers were cognizant that legalizing medical marijuana is a sensitive subject and in 2014, they thought they had buried the topic for a few years. This law, while only helping 130 children is a blessing for these families, and set the stage that there are scientific reasons to expand access to cannabis medicine.
In 2015, Libertarian-leaning Republican Senator Mark Madsen, who suffers from chronic back pain, found relief when he tried medical cannabis during a family visit in Colorado. Upon his return to Utah, he furiously began working with the drafting attorney, Samuel C. Johnston on Capitol Hill to craft a common sense bill that would allow controlled access to another 100,000 people. Most bills are drafted and introduced before or at the beginning of the legislative session, yet despite his late start, Sen. Madsen’s bill failed to pass the Senate by only one vote.
Not knowing that Madsen was drafting a bill in the Utah Senate, I reached out to my representative, conservative Republican Brad Daw, and asked him to draft language expanding medical cannabis access. Daw invited Chris Cannon to participate and began pushing for language that required all patients to be a part of clinical trials in order to get medical cannabis.
Being a lawmaker is a difficult job, mostly because they are expected to know and understand intimate details and repercussions from subjects ranging from storm sewer runoff to Medicaid policy in order to intelligently vote on hundreds of bills during a short 40-day legislative session.
From the outset, Daw has admitted that his knowledge of medical cannabis was limited to a few CBD researchers at the University of Utah and has had serious concerns about allowing THC to get into the hands of the public, which I completely understand. It was obvious that when Daw and Cannon sent over the draft of their 1 percent THC and mandatory clinical trial bill, that neither would support or advocate on behalf of Madsen’s bill, for which I was deeply disappointed.
During the last two weeks, Cannon increasingly took the lead while Daw hovered on the sidelines. Cannon began negotiating directly with myself and Madsen to include clinical trial language into Madsen's bill. When Madsen’s bill failed to pass the Senate by one vote, we were saddened, but optimistic that we would be back next year, which was exactly the thing that Senate and House leadership feared the most.
Last summer we heard rumors that Daw and Senator Evan Vickers of Cedar City, a pharmacist by trade, were crafting an alternative bill to present in the 2016 session. I spoke to Vickers a few times last year and found him to be a smart, reasonable man.
Before the session started, Daw sent me the draft of the bill he crafted with Vickers. Immediately I recognized the the bill for what it was, a submarine bill -- a watered-down bill intended to sabotage Madsen’s bill, by giving lawmakers an opportunity to vote for something, so they can return to their constituents and say, "I voted for the bill and I’m trying to help." This is very important for elected representatives who want to stay in the good graces of the 65-80 percent of Utahns, who support the legalization of medical cannabis.
Over the last few weeks, Daw and Vickers have been telling people that this is a conservative science-based bill to help people alleviate suffering. It sounds good, but this is pure political posturing and their argument doesn’t hold up for several reasons.
1) Daw's original language last year allowed for 1 percent THC. When the bill was introduced at the beginning of the legislative session, it allowed for 3-5 percent THC. After an email exchange with Daw a couple of weeks ago, indicating that our daughter Maddie required 8-10 percent THC, Daw updated the bill and it now allowed for 10 percent THC. I appreciate Daw’s willingness to accommodate my family’s needs, but it seems that a almost triple THC content was based on a constituent who was a squeaky wheel, not science. Will he move it again if other constituents plead their case and show scientific proof? How strong are his prejudices and what happens when he learns about the 100 percent THC lotion for arthritis?
2) In the legislature, representatives and congressmen run a fine line between subject matter experts and exploiting personal self interests.
Utah has its fair share of corruption and self-interested lawmakers as illustrated when charter school laws were drafted and sponsored by lawmakers who built, financed and managed charter schools, and sat on education committees.
Sen. Vickers owns three pharmacies and knows that they aren’t as profitable as they have been in the past. Allowing 200 new cannabis medications into the market, will definitely affect his bottom line.
He may have good intentions, however, he stands to profit handsomely by mandating that all medical cannabis be sold through pharmacies, or limiting the accessibility of medical cannabis to the general public.
His intentions may be pure, but I think there is a fine line between advocating or sponsoring a bill as a subject matter expert and profiting from a bill that you introduce yourself.
3) Both Vickers and Daw are conservatives who believe in limited government, yet it seems that they have abandoned their conservative principles in writing this submarine bill -- inserting lawmakers themselves between us and our neurologist, and restricting our freedom. We found that moderate Republicans are the least likely to support a medical cannabis bill.
Libertarians, conservative Republicans (like Senator Margaret Dayton), liberals and independents know that a comprehensive, tightly controlled cannabis bill is inevitable. When I learned that the conservative Eagle Forum, a strong supporter of Madsen’s Libertarian leanings, supported lobbying for Daw's bill, it saddened me that it had abandoned its principles and become victim of its own produces, or worse, pawns in the political machine.
4) Not a single patient supports the Daw/Vickers bill. There are several factions of patients who are advocating for medical cannabis, yet I was shocked when I learned that Daw and Vickers haven’t been able to convince a single patient to advocate for their bill. The purpose of this law is to help people, yet the Daw/Vickers bill doesn’t really help anyone, except my family and a couple hundred other people.
If the Daw/Vickers is passed in the current form, not only will it draw attention to the massive scientific shortcomings of the bill, but it also will showcase the laziness of Utah lawmakers who are choosing to put their head in the sand and abandon thousands of potential patients who will not only become more vocal, but will continue to visit Capitol Hill each year to fight for their liberty and right to alleviate the suffering of their loved ones, and basic constitutional rights.