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.
To patients, Daw said he was "deeply, deeply sorry.”
"I wish we could have done something this session, I really do, but we had so much contention and so much agitation that at the end, you got nothing," he said.
Vickers said he thought provisions in the sixth substitute of the bill — including a tax on medical marijuana — would have paid for themselves, but he found out the cost would be substantial later that day.
“That’s what happens, unfortunately, when you try to do something on the last night, because the budgets are pretty well set,” Vickers said.
Earlier Thursday, Madsen said he would be unsurprised — and glad — if the bill didn't pass.
SB89 would have increased costs for patients and imposed a convoluted set of regulations on the industry, creating a "debacle" for Utah for years, he said.
Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE (Together For Responsible Use and Cannabis Education), said her group is renewing its push for a comprehensive medical marijuana bill next year similar to what Madsen proposed.
Stenquist said she's also keeping the possibility of a referendum on the table.
"If we can work on this legislatively and get something in 2017, fantastic," she said. "If not, the ballot initiative is a guarantee for patients, and that's what needs to stay in place.
"The conversation has been started," Stenquist added. "We are not going to stop."
Madsen is not running for re-election but he said he will be around to support “good policy” and may turn his efforts to helping patients start a political action committee.
“I’ve been a professional fundraiser in D.C.,” Madsen said. “I can raise money.”
He also repeated accusations that the Vickers-Daw bill was meant to distract from his proposal and sabotage legalization efforts.
"We had momentum," he said. "All of that progress ended when it got to the House."
Daw said he is "completely offended" by Madsen's accusations that SB89 was never meant to pass.
“I worked harder on this bill than any bill I have ever run in my legislative career,” Daw said.
He and Vickers plan to run their bill again next year.
For Frodsham, the decision — for now — means that he’s stuck with opiates to deal with the pain and his recent neck surgery. He’s scared of narcotics — how they dull his mind, how they trigger addiction.
As a father, active member in his church and manager at work, Frodsham says he feels like he’s “still in the shadows” — afraid medical marijuana will come up at work, ashamed to talk about it with his kids and conflicted because of the sometimes ambiguous stance the LDS Church has taken on it.
“It’s just funny to see it because if you’ve been on the other side, that fear from drugs, you’re like, ‘People haven’t let go of that?’” he said.
But mixed in with the disappointment is hope, according to Frodsham.24 comments on this story
“A lot of people are not giving up,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen for sure. I think it’s an inevitability.”
Contributing: Dennis Romboy