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House opts not to vote on medical marijuana bill

Published: Thursday, March 10 2016 5:05 p.m. MST

Rep. Brad Daw discusses SB 89, a medical marijuana bill, during a majority caucus on the final day of legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would have made Utah the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana died without a vote on the House floor Thursday.

It was a quiet ending to a debate that has been one of the most contentious and time-consuming issues of the 2016 Legislature.

The sponsor of SB89, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said lawmakers could not come to an agreement on several last-minute changes to the bill — most notably one that would have allowed doctors to prescribe higher amounts of THC.

THC, one of the roughly 80 active compounds in marijuana, has been at the center of the debate between two dueling medical marijuana bills. The chemical is thought to have medical benefits for certain illnesses, but is controversial because it causes the "high" associated with marijuana.

Some, including the Utah Medical Association, thought the changes went too far and withdrew support for the bill.

Others, including many patient advocates, thought SB89 didn’t go far enough.

The bill was still being changed — sometimes dramatically — as the session entered its last day.

In the end, Vickers said, with the hours ticking down, it became clear lawmakers could not come to a consensus before the midnight deadline.

“The votes were soft on it, and I think part of it was just the confusion,” Vickers said. “This is a really complicated public policy issue. … You don’t want to make those kinds of decisions based on emotion. You want to make it based on fact.”

Among patients — some of whom stayed at the Capitol late into the night to see if the bill would be revived — there was a mixture of disappointment and relief.

Many patients had championed SB73, the measure sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, which would have legalized access to the entirety of the marijuana plant for a wider list of patients.

Nathan Frodsham, a former business analyst with Amazon in Seattle who moved to Utah in 2014 thinking the state was sure to legalize medical marijuana soon, described the 45-day session as “expectation whiplash.”

Frodsham has degenerative disc disease and cervical osteoarthritis, which means the nerves in his spine and neck are being compressed all the time, shooting pain and muscle spasms through his arms and neck.

As Madsen’s bill passed several tough hurdles in the Senate and collected ringing endorsements from high-profile Utahns — including Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and ex-University of Utah football coach Ron McBride — “it seemed like it was heading toward something so exciting,” Frodsham said.

Those hopes ground to a halt Monday when a House committee voted not to send the bill to the full House.

“With patients, we just kind of feel let down that this kind of political maneuvering can happen," Frodsham said. "To make a stalemate so nothing can happen."

“To me it felt like we were in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" he added. “Except for we lost.”

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the House sponsor of SB89, believes he had the votes to pass the bill legalizing medical cannabis on a limited basis. But he said it took so long to get to a consensus that there was no money left to appropriate to the bill.

The estimated cost was $979,200 in one-time expenses, according to Daw.

"I don't have the money; that's the bottom line. I don't have the money. And we cannot pass a bill that we don't fund," Daw said.

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