Utah Making More Changes with Medical Marijuana on the Horizon

Almost a full year after passing a controversial substitute law for a ballot initiative passed by the voters, the Utah state legislature and the governor once again altered the state’s plan to legalize medical cannabis. In a unanimous vote, the biggest change involves scrapping plans for a centralized state-run dispensary in favor of the private sector coming in to manage the system.  

While there are still lingering doubts in the community about the legislature’s intentions and standing to change how medical cannabis is legalized in the state, the reaction to these latest changes have mostly been positive. For one thing, it would seemingly prevent the state from sabotaging access to medical cannabis for populations with a legitimate need. The private sector also provides an extra voice that can advocate for patient safety and access.

The new changes also increase the number of dispensaries to 14—a modest increase that may still leave rural areas without a dispensary within a reasonable drive. It will allow for 10 cannabis production and distribution licenses to be issued to somewhere between 5 and 8 growers.

For those familiar with the state’s governing history, it might seem like an odd choice to relinquish control of implementing the new market for medical cannabis. For many years, the state has maintained a centralized and strictly controlled system for buying, marketing, and selling beer and alcohol. It is not, however, unique in its centralized regulatory authority as many believe.

Moreover, the state isn’t exactly relinquishing its normal regulatory authority when it comes to marijuana. The new law also allows for the creation of an online central state portal for “patient safety and education.” Ideally, this educational portal will include reasonable guidelines for medical providers who remain skeptical about their ability and liability in prescribing marijuana as a medication.

In this context, Utah provides a unique case for legalized medical cannabis with several factors to keep an eye on moving forward. How quickly will the medical community find a reliable and safe way for patients to get a marijuana prescription? How proactive will the state be in incrementally increasing the number of dispensaries allowed? And when it does so, will the new dispensaries focus on increasing access in rural areas or increasing tax revenues by adding dispensaries in population-dense urban areas? Will Utah eventually usurp and create a centralized state-run system if medical cannabis becomes legalized on the federal level?