It has been a rocky start to the roll-out of cannabis in Utah. The Director of Utah’s medical cannabis program speaks to Utah Stories.
Medical Cannabis in Utah
When something like cannabis (aka Marijuana) begins to gain widespread acceptance in a place as conservative as Utah, there is bound to be pushback and opposition. Older lawmakers still claim “gateway drug” status, and likely remember the highly effective propaganda campaigns that drove prohibition.
The opposition leaders are finally accepting defeat, but they are still working in the background to thwart the momentum of the movement that would offer the greatest amount of patient access to medical cannabis as medicine.
Opposition leaders have failed to recognize that while certainly patients will likely feign illness to receive recommendation cards to buy cannabis legally, Utah is one of the top states in the country for both opioid abuse and over-the-counter prescription drug abuse. Legal medical cannabis could certainly make a positive impact on this pattern of abuse.
Up until a few weeks ago, while cannabis would be only allowed to legitimate patients suffering from pain, a major provision in HB 3001 was for the State of Utah to control cannabis in a similar fashion to how the DABC controls alcohol in Utah: using state-operated facilities to distribute to state-operated facilities.
Within the bill was what could only be described as poison pills, which was to use a massive central facility and hiring state agents to regulate all of the distribution to state health facilities and a few medical cannabis pharmacies. If a primary goal is to allow legal cannabis to compete against the black market and bordering states, the additional regulation costs would have made this impossible.
HB 3001 sponsor Evan Vickers has finally agreed to ditch “the central fill plan” and he is allowing the free market to handle both distribution and will allow twelve private medical cannabis pharmacies rather than seven. Further, state agencies will not be used to distribute medical cannabis as planned. It seems sound judgment and rational thinking has entered into the equation. Still the compromises to the “compromise bill” is nowhere near as good as what the voters passed back in November 2018 in Proposition Two.
The new Director of Medical Cannabis for the Utah Department of Agriculture, Andrew Rigby, came from the world of financing cannabis operations in California and Nevada. He learned what it takes for medical cannabis companies to survive and thrive in the industry.
Rigby recognizes that there is a “frenzy in the market” and people are willing to do irrational things in order to stake out their space. It’s still a risky space, and Drew says that that risk can be mitigated by working with people who understand the risk and understand the market. But Rigby believes once the feds nationalize cannabis, and he admits he has no idea when this could happen, all legal power will consolidate at the national level, with states choosing their specific methods of permitting, distribution, licensing procedures. In essence, cannabis products will be treated at the state level in a similar manner to how alcohol products are today.
Will all of the permits they are handing out become worthless at that point?
Well, it’s hard to say what the dynamics of the nation will look like. You might see some federal presence with, but at that point, these state licenses could be worthless. It’s all speculation.
Does it feel like a gold rush mentality?
Absolutely. 100% and that this something I need to be aware of because you want to encourage agriculture communities and farmers but we don’t know how long this will last for. Hemp was just descheduled. We don’t know how much product is being used, how much a pound is selling for. How much is biomass selling for? You have all sorts of products that come out. The problem is that you have so many people who want to participate, but nobody really knows the market. It would keep you up at night. You never know. You never really know. And that is part of the risk involved. To encourage people to participate but there are huge risks involved because there are so many variables.
What about the poison pills baked into the compromise bill written instead of Proposition Two?
As citizens of Utah we should feel fortunate that in 2018 we got a medical program passed. If you would have asked me two years ago, “would Utah ever have a medical cannabis program?” I would have said, “hell no.”
When it was going around and being talked about people were asking my opinion. In regards to the bill being passed, I’ll leave my opinion out of that. But what I can say is that what is coming I will be much more proud of.
People need to see that the compromise bill had to happen. People knew what was coming, people knew that there would be a compromise and that would start the conversation to something bigger and better. I will reiterate, as I have been involved, Everyone has been reasonable. What we have coming down the pipeline in the special session, everyone has been reasonable and cordial and willing to listen because they know that what we have now is going to be something good.
Our goal as a state and as policy makers is to create the best program possible.
Defining the word “best” best for who?
I think if you could put patients on a pedestal that would be great.
The patient has been at the pinnacle of every conversation that we have been talking about. There has been a mantra that has been coming up, “if this is a medicine, we are going to treat this like a medicine.”
The progress that has happened just in the past two years in the perceptions of the LDS people has been remarkable. Has this progress been due largely to the LDS patient advocacy groups?
Drew sold out his business in January. He signed a non-compete with the company that bought his company out. So his position is a result of a way that he could remain in the cannabis space and not violate his non-compete.
The Church has never reached out to me and said a damn thing. They haven’t reached out to me.
But (The LDS Church and Libertas) pretty much wrote the compromise bill though didn’t they?
Libertas wrote the compromise bill with the Church. There is no one person who has been a single source of this change. But as this dialogue has moved a lot there have been more and more people getting involved. But the Church hasn’t.
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