SB 73 fails in Utah committee; SB 89 sent to House for debate

Tuesday , March 08, 2016 - 1:24 PM1 comment

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

SALT LAKE CITY — After a legislative committee debated two medical marijuana bills, only one survived and advanced to the House for full debate.

Lindsey Ohlin of Roy was not surprised SB89, known as the Vickers-Daw bill, advanced 7-5 while Sen. Mark Madsen’s SB73, the broader of the two measures, failed in a 4-8 vote Monday, March 7.

Ohlin, who suffers from fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, said she’s tried many medications to ease her pain and hoped to test out medical marijuana. She supported the patient-driven SB73.

“I felt like it was a predetermined outcome. It didn’t seem like they were interested in anything Sen. Madsen had to say,” Ohlin said outside the committee room, which was packed with people for almost three hours.

The fifth iteration of SB89 approved by the House panel opened the door a bit wider to more patients and included two tiers of treatment — one that would cap Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component in marijuana, to 5 percent, another that would allow a 1:1 ratio between cannabinoids and THC. 

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, worked on the fifth iteration of SB89 and said it would provide “limited access to a broader group of chemicals in the plant” while being tightly controlled by several state agencies.

The 5 percent cap of THC defined by tier one would let certain doctors recommend high-CBD, low-THC cannabis-based medicines to Utahns 18 and old who are being treated for qualifying conditions.

Tier two would apply to two groups of physicians, Spendlove said. The first group could recommend any ratio of CBD to THC and treat patients suffering from certain incurable, catastrophic or rare conditions with limited time to live. The second group could only prescribe oral, sublingual and topical cannabis-based medicines that have a THC-CBD ratio of 1:1 for patients with certain conditions. All tier two physicians would receive specialized training, and patients would have to be referred to the specialists by their primary care physicians.

The new version of the bill would also block the Division of Child and Family Services from removing children from parents using medical marijuana.

Both SB89 and SB73 offer a stiff regulatory framework for growing, producing, processing and distributing the product, along with the means to pay for such purchases in spite of marijuana still being classified as an illegal Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states, and the current stance of federal agencies in those locations is to basically look the other way.

George Chapman, a former candidate for Salt Lake City mayor, voiced concerns about increasing the number of incapacitated drivers on the road by legalizing any form of marijuana. 

“I don’t care how many times you amend this, change this and discuss this, I don’t think any of these bills make sense because I don’t want to see more marijuana on our streets. I think this is a public safety issue,“ Chapman said. ”Police enforcement is still a problem. Please don’t pass these bills.“

But Dr. LeGrand Belnap, a practicing cancer surgeon, said he’s treated many patients grappling with difficult, chronic diseases. 

”If I were going to choose one bill over the other, I would choose SB73 over SB89,“ Belnap said. ”I’m very tired of seeing an exodus of my patients from this state to Colorado, California, wherever they have to go to get treated for the diseases they have.“

Belnap described medical marijuana as the most important issue before the Utah Legislature this year. 

“We’re talking about the quality and duration of people’s lives,” Belnap said, pointing out that there are already 20,000 published papers dealing with marijuana in relation to patient care. “The whole plant is used in most of these studies, not just cannabidiol. That is my huge objection to SB89.”

Madsen went into great detail about extensive regulatory safeguards built into SB73, his whole-plant extract bill aimed at treating many more patients and conditions than SB89. However, he also kept the focus on patients he said are suffering, need relief and don’t need to be made criminals.

Ogden resident Lindsay Sledge told committee members about her 2-year-old daughter, Paloma, who has Dravet Syndrome and suffers from intense and frequent seizures. Paloma would need a higher level of THC than what SB89 would provide, Sledge said.

“It is not a cure . . . but it gives us a better quality of life,” Sledge said. ”It means that we don’t have to call 9-1-1 every week, and it means that she has not as many near-deaths. It has the ability to stop seizures, versus adult-sized doses of benzodiazepene, which have made her stop breathing several times and almost killed her.”

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, spoke against SB73, asking to table the bill because too many regulatory questions and concerns still remain. 

But Rep. Gage Froerer, a Huntsville Republican and House sponsor for SB73, said he and Madsen started down this road two years ago. 

“We know for a fact that there are patients out there in need of this medicine,” Froerer said. “In my belief, SB73 has taken a very stable approach with high walls that look to bring more people into the tent ... I also believe that something this important to the citizens of Utah should have the ability to be debated on the floor.”

But that likely will not happen this year unless SB73 somehow gets resurrected. 

Three representatives from northern Utah voted against SB73: Rep. Stewart Barlow of Fruit Heights, Rep. Ed Redd of Logan and Rep. Paul Ray of Clinton. Rep. Ray Ward of Bountiful voted for the bill.

A patient advocate group called TRUCE has vowed to launch a ballot initiative for legalizing medical marijuana, a concept that enjoys broad public support in Utah.

Bountiful resident Darcy VanOrden is part of TRUCE and said the petition drive might get bumped to the next general election in 2018 because of the tight April 15 deadline looming to both file the proper forms and collect close to 102,000 signatures of registered voters around the state.

VanOrden expressed hope that SB89 can be further strengthened this year to allow doctors to determine what is best for their patients, including the appropriate levels of THC needed to treat their conditions.

“I find it bizarre that the Legislature thinks they can dictate the amount of THC,” VanOrden said. “I think that is well outside their ability.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck. 

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