Utah Voters Just Legalized Medical Marijuana. Will It Matter?

Published on November 6, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
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Utah voters came out in force Tuesday, voting by a healthy margin to legalize medical cannabis statewide. As of 10 p.m. local time, with 54% of precincts reporting, the measure had a 54.1–45.9% lead.

So what happens next?

First, you celebrate. Legalization in Utah was a hard-won and symbolic victory, a sign that the benefits of medical cannabis are beating out the myths that prop up prohibition.

Now Utahns just have to wait and see what their elected officials do.

Second, you come to terms with the reality that the measure Utah voters just passed might not actually mean much. The result was, as the Washington Postdescribed it, “essentially a foregone conclusion” regardless of what happened at the polls.

About a month before Election Day, leaders on both sides of the issue announced that they’d struck a deal to establish a separate, more limited medical cannabis program than the one laid out in Proposition 2. It was a compromise aimed at finding common ground between the two camps and putting an end to what had turned into heated campaign rhetoric.

Lawmakers have promised to get to work on passing the bill—the complete text of which is available here—in a special legislative session expected to convene later this month. This will allow them to more or less ignore Prop. 2, because the Legislature in Utah is able to amend approved initiatives on a simple majority vote.

Legalization Lite

For legalization supporters, the bargain has upsides and downsides. On one hand, it appears the deal will establish a working medical cannabis program in Utah—no small victory, especially a month ago, when success on Election Day was anything but certain. On the other hand, the medical cannabis program will be severely restricted compared to systems already in place in many other states.

For one, the number of legal dispensaries in the state (or “medical cannabis pharmacies,” as they’ll be called) will be quite small—just six across the state, five of which will be privately owned and one to be publicly operated. That number would eventually rise to 10 total facilities. By comparison, Prop. 2 would’ve allowed one dispensary per 150,000 residents, or about eight locations in Salt Lake City alone. To ensure ease of access for patients, Prop. 2 also would’ve required at least one licensed dispensary per county. The compromise bill drops that provision.

As for medicine itself, the big differences are edibles and flower. Edibles are barred by the compromise bill, while Prop. 2 would’ve allowed them. The compromise bill also prohibits the sale of unprocessed cannabis flower—unless it’s split up into a blister pack, with each blister containing no more than one gram of cannabis. (It’s the same stuff, so maybe the extra packaging is just supposed to make it feel more like a pharmaceutical?) Aside from that, the only allowed products will be capsules, tablets, concentrated oils, tinctures, topicals, sublinguals, chewable or dissolvable pills, skin patches, or, in rare cases, extracts like wax or rosin.

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Homegrow will also be forbidden under the compromise, while Prop. 2 would’ve allowed patients to grow at home if they were more than 100 miles from the nearest dispensary. The change could be a disappointment to those with mobility obstacles or who have a need for specific strains of cannabis that might not be available at dispensaries.

The compromise bill also narrows the list of qualifying conditions, omitting autoimmune disorders and gastrointestinal disorders as well as redefining chronic pain as “lasting longer than two weeks [and] not substantially responsive to conventional medications other than opioids or opiates or physical interventions.”

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Doctors, too, would be more restricted. Prop. 2 would allow any practicing physician to recommend cannabis, just like they can other drugs. The compromise bill, however, requires doctors who want to recommend cannabis to complete four hours of continuing education in order to receive a license to recommend the drug. That license must be renewed every two years. Pharmacists would also have to obtain separate licenses.

Some supporters of Prop. 2 are skeptical. “I don’t think it’s a compromise,” Christine Stenquist, who founded the advocacy group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, told Leafly last month. “I think it was created in fear and is designed to fail.”

Skeptics say the compromise was a tool designed to diminish voter turnout and deflect the growing calls in Utah to establish a medical cannabis program. The deal’s supporters, meanwhile, say the state is committed to moving forward.

This is not to interrupt [Proposition 2], this is to acknowledge it,” state House Speaker Greg Hughes told lawmakers at an public forum late last month. “If Proposition 2 were to fail, we’d still want to move forward with a model to provide medical cannabis to patients who needed it.”

Proposition 2 didn’t fail—not by a long shot. Now Utahns just have to wait and see what their elected officials do.

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Ben Adlin
Ben Adlin
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin
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