SALT LAKE CITY — Medical marijuana advocates and conservative groups sparred Monday over proposed changes to Utah’s medical marijuana program during a tense, two-hour public hearing.
Utah legislators sought feedback on changes to the law ahead of a special session next week to approve the revisions.
Amendments regarding the distribution and prosecution of drug crimes drew the most debate among people on both sides of the issue.
The draft suggests eliminating an unusual plan for a state-run medical marijuana dispensary system in favor of private dispensaries.
The decision followed concerns that state distribution could put public employees at risk of prosecution under federal drug laws.
Medical marijuana advocates raised concern that 12 dispensaries won’t be enough to meet growing patient demand.
“We have patients everywhere now in this state, and they’re so spread out ... what about the people out in rural areas? That’s who I worry about,” Tiffiny Malo, a mother of two cannabis patients, said.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative group Utah Eagle Forum, lamented that her organization agreed to hold off last fall in putting up billboards and running advertisements against the ballot initiative after she was told the compromise legislation would include elements such as the state central dispensary system that would make it better.
“Here we are today changing what we all backed off for, and why?” Ruzicka said. “Before the bill even goes into place, the compromise has been changed and we all trusted that wouldn’t happen.”
Medical marijuana patients became emotional as they relayed their fear of being prosecuted for drug crimes.
“I’m a really good mom,” Megan Keller, who uses medical marijuana to control her seizures, said. “To say a judge can take my kids because of that is awful.”
Her statement was met with cheers from the crowd. Medical marijuana advocates far outnumbered opponents of legalization at the hearing.
Dani Palmer, the vice president of Utah Eagle Forum, said she’s seen parents who use cannabis that act “out of it” and “can’t take care of another person.”
“Why would we tie a judge’s hands and say you can’t consider this abuse of a child?” Palmer said. “I don’t think that’s the right way to protect a child.”
Utah health and agricultural officials closed out the hearing by highlighting issues with zoning and land use ordinances that could prevent growers from having medical marijuana ready for patients by next year.
Several marijuana growers are facing delays in opening their facilities and planting crops, said Drew Rigby, the cannabis coordinator for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Still, Republican Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who drafted the revised law, said he’s optimistic that the changes will improve patient access and expedite the process.
“There’s a sense of urgency here,” he said.
Utah’s medical marijuana program is set to launch next year.