SALT LAKE CITY — An agriculture department official told state lawmakers Monday that its days as "a sleepy little agency that not a lot of people pay attention to" may be numbered thanks to the department's central role in determining how new cannabis-related laws are implemented in Utah.
A handful of recently passed laws dealing with hemp and medical marijuana give the agency "sole oversight" of "cultivation, process, testing and distribution" regulations, said Scott Erickson, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
"Most other states have a number of different departments that have jurisdiction over some portion of the cannabis process," Erickson told the Administrative Rules Review Committee.
"We asked for this (elevated role), and sometimes we wonder why we asked for this because of the headaches that it's starting to create, but I think it's a better model to make sure we have … (a) more streamlined process."
Examples of rule-making can include drafting regulations on how the department tests for bad CBD oil products, or how it monitors whether hemp crops contain a sufficiently minor amount of psychoactive THC.
The high level of participation in the public hearings on the department's administrative rules mean more than one public comment period is necessary, making drafting those regulations a more time-consuming process than usual, according to Erickson.
"(When) we have significant comments that force us to substantively change that rule, then we have to go through another public comment period. … If that takes three or four different iterations, it takes 45 days at best between each of those comment periods so we can meet (our) statutory responsibilities," he said.
The Department of Agriculture is hoping to finalize its regulations on the sale of CBD oil and the use of industrial hemp by Dec. 15, Erickson said. Laws permitting the commercial use of hemp and requiring that retail CBD oil products be registered with the state were passed earlier this year.
He said new regulations on the cultivation of marijuana in Utah — as approved by the Utah Legislature this year on behalf of research efforts and providing marijuana to terminally ill patients — aren't expected to be finalized until about the end of next year's legislative session in early March.
"It's what I'm spending almost 100 percent of my time doing right now because it is a big issue in the state," Erickson said.
"It's going to change our department from being a sleepy little agency that not a lot of people pay attention to, to being in the forefront, so we're trying to do it the right way — wanting to make sure we follow the process and make sure the public is involved in that process as we move through it."
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, asked Erickson how quickly the Department of Agriculture would be able to implement regulations related to the recently certified medical marijuana ballot initiative if it were passed by voters this fall.
"My sense is, if the people of the state want medical marijuana, they're not going to be pleased with a seven-year rollout," Dabakis said.6 comments on this story
Erickson told Dabakis that the initiative contains language that is "prescriptive" for when new regulations need to be in place, but that it may be difficult to hit those targets.
"I don't know that it's possible to meet the specific dates in the initiative for the rule-making process," he said.
Erickson also said there is "some conflict between" the recently passed cannabis laws and the initiative, in terms of instructions for the department.
"It will be a huge administrative challenge to (implement multiple) statutes simultaneously, or they'll have to change and marry up somehow so that there is some clarification in that," he said.