SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mark Madsen’s medical marijuana bill lives on after the Utah Senate voted 15-13 Monday afternoon to give the legislation a final hearing.
After another 90 minutes of debate and discussion, Madsen tearfully asked Senate members to send the bill to a final vote, calling patients by name who could benefit from medical marijuana.
"I don’t want to let these patients, the sick and the suffering, I don’t want to let them down," he said.
Last Friday, Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, made seven amendments to SB73 on the Senate floor, including removing use of the whole marijuana plant, in an attempt to placate concerns.
In a statement issued Monday morning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the amendments were "a substantial improvement," but concerns over regulatory controls persist.
Debate on the Senate floor ranged from concerns whether medical marijuana would lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana, to Utah's policies forcing people to go out of state for marijuana at risk to their employment, possible criminal charges and child welfare investigations.
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, who is an emergency room physician, said marijuana is neither the panacea some people make it out to be nor is it as bad as others surmise.
"We need to have more research on this," he said.
But others, including Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the federal war on drugs has failed while thousands of people die annually overdosing on legally prescribed opiates.
"There are 270 opiate overdose deaths in Utah every year. How many do we have from marijuana? Zero," Stephenson said.
SB73 gives people "the right to try when their family members are suffering so badly. Let's not make them to go to Colorado or Nevada to ease their suffering," he said.
Christine Stenquist, president of the advocacy group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, said she believes SB73 would have had more votes if the Senate had voted after debate Friday.
Monday's debate suggested "that some doubts had creeped in, so I'm concerned. I'm worried about the third reading," Stenquist said.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the issue deserves the debate of the full Legislature before "a referendum takes over and tells us how it's going to go."
Some senators expressed the same concerns as the LDS Church, particularly the risks for youths.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said marijuana is "not a harmless herb."
A friend's 15-year-old son went from "having everything in the world going for him" to "a shell of what he used to be" as he spent his energies looking for that next high, she said.
"He is now a young man of 21 and has been diagnosed with marijuana induced psychosis," Henderson said.
In its statement Monday, the LDS Church said: “In our view, the issue for the Utah Legislature is how to enable the use of marijuana extracts to help people who are suffering, without increasing the likelihood of misuse at a time when drug abuse in the United States is at epidemic proportions, especially among youth.
"Recent changes to SB73 are a substantial improvement. We continue to urge legislators to take into account the acknowledged need for scientific research in this matter and to fully address regulatory controls on manufacture and distribution for the health and safety of all Utahns,” according to church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
The statement was issued minutes before final Senate debate on SB89, a bill sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, that would permit limited use of the nonpsychoactive cannabis extract. That bill passed handily and moves to the House for its consideration.
Prior to the vote on Vickers' bill, some senators questioned whether it would be possible to merge the two bills or at least debate them one after another so the Senate fully understood the difference between the two.
Vickers said he trusted the judgment of the body, which agreed to move ahead with the vote, which was 18-8.
In response to a question about a merger, Vickers said is was possible "in theory. In practicality, I’m not sure."
Madsen, speaking off the Senate floor to members of the media following the vote on Vickers' bill, said he questions whether merging the bills would be "functionally practicable. They come from two different philosophies, and the process of drafting the two bills was so dramatically different. I really have questions as to whether that could happen.”
As for the LDS Church's latest statement on SB73, Madsen said he was "very encouraged."
"I think we're moving in the right direction," he said.
Madsen said he, attorneys and others have "worked to make this the absolute tightest program in the country. We’ve looked to see what other states are doing. And again, most of the other states, if you’re not looking at Colorado and California, most of the other states have not had the problems."
Madsen said he remains open to suggestions.
"You know, if there’s something else we can do, let’s talk about it and do it," he said, "but I feel very confident that I can, again, go to my colleagues and those who are willing to reason and walk through this in a rational way, and I think I can address these points."
Madsen's amendments to SB73 removed workplace protections for public employees who use medical marijuana legally; deleted provisions that would have kept cities from using zoning to block dispensaries and grow facilities; allowed random inspections of dispensaries and grow facilities; and prevents dispensaries and grow facilities from being located within 1,000 feet of schools or 600 feet of churches.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he'd give the bills "a good chance" of passing in the House even though he has his own concerns with lawmakers making decisions about what qualifies as medical marijuana.
"I don't really get it. I really don't. But I understand the human toll," Hughes said. He said "because there's been so much work in terms of educating lawmakers and I think there is such a human element to this, I'd give it a good chance in terms of whether it passes or not. But I don't know for sure."
Even though time is running out this session, the speaker said Vickers' bill — and Madsen's, if it passes the Senate — will be heard by a House committee. He said if both bills pass the Senate, he expects they will be heard at the same time.
Both bills were presented to the House GOP caucus earlier this session, but the majority members did not take any positions on the issue.
In related business Monday, the Utah Senate unanimously supported SJR11, which urges Congress to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug and encourages researchers to investigate the benefits of medical marijuana. The resolution, sponsored by Shiozawa, moves to a final reading in the Senate.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Emily Larson