The slow-motion rollout of Utah’s voter-approved medical marijuana program hurdles forward, with health officials forecasting a limited launch in the coming weeks.
Marc Babitz, deputy director with the Utah Department of Health, told a group of state lawmakers Wednesday that only one or two dispensaries are slated to open in the first week of March, and that even then it will likely be difficult for patients to get a cannabis prescription.
That’s because Babitz said the number of physicians who have indicated they’re interested in recommending marijuana for patients is “very limited” — something he attributed to wariness over prescribing a drug that remains illegal on the federal level.
“I think this is actually much safer than a lot of the medications that we use,” Babitz said, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Medical Marijuana in Utah
Voters in Utah approved a referendum legalizing medical marijuana in 2018, making it the 33rd state to do so.
But the lead-up to the program’s March launch has been marked by delays and controversies. After voters approved the measure 53 percent to 47 percent, Utah legislators immediately began work on a compromise bill to overwrite the proposal approved at the ballot. The bill passed and was signed into law during a special session in December 2018, dramatically limiting the scope of the measure approved by a majority of voters only a month earlier.
Marijuana advocates challenged the bill in court, but the lawsuit was thrown out by the Utah Supreme Court in August. Justice Paige Petersen, writing for the court’s majority, ruled that while the state’s constitution “creates and protects the voters’ right to place legislation on the ballot for approval or rejection by the people, it also carves out an exception to that right.”
“When both houses of the legislature pass legislation by a two-thirds supermajority, that law is not subject to a referendum,” Petersen wrote. “Because this renders moot Petitioners’ argument about the constitutionality of the statutory referendum sponsor requirements, we do not address it.”
The law passed by the Utah legislature in December 2018 was designed to allow residents to use medical marijuana before patient cards are officially handed out, but only if patients could get approval from a physician; as Babitz said this week, finding a willing medical provider has been a tall order.
Earlier this month, health officials in Utah said they would award pharmacy licenses to 10 companies to dispense medical marijuana at 14 sites across the state, with some opening in March and others opening in the summer.