Utah Bill Targets Cities That Refuse To Recognize Medical Pot

Two influential Utah state lawmakers have joined forces to advance legislation that would cut funding to cities that refuse to recognize medical marijuana as a legitimate medical therapy. 

Utah voters approved the medical use of cannabis in a 2018 ballot measure that passed with nearly 53% of the vote. Following the passage of the initiative, the state legislature approved a regulatory plan that essentially treats medical cannabis as a traditional prescription drug. Under the plan, cannabis is still considered a controlled substance but patients are allowed to use medical marijuana like they would any other prescribed medication.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, however, says that some local governments have refused to accept medical cannabis as a legitimate medical treatment and are discriminating against public employees who are registered medical marijuana patients. Escamilla says that some cities have questioned employees about their status as medical cannabis patients and disciplined those who say they have received a medical cannabis card.

“At the end of the day they are in violation of state law,” Escamilla told local media. “It’s very clear you don’t get to force people to tell you they’re using controlled substances as a prescription. This is a recommended, prescribed medication and they’re treating them differently. That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Escamilla is backing a bill that would make minor adjustments to the state’s medical marijuana program. To address employment discrimination by local governments, the legislation would also cut funding to cities that discriminate against medical marijuana card holders. The measure, Senate Bill 233 (SB 233), was advanced by the Senate with a voice vote on Tuesday after the measure’s third reading in the chamber.

Bill Has Bipartisan Support From Senate Leadership

The legislation is supported by Escamilla, the bill’s chief sponsor, and Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, a Republican, giving the measure substantial clout in the upper chamber of Utah’s state legislature. Medical marijuana advocates including the Utah Patients Coalition also support the bill. 

“Despite the clear legal framework supporting their rights, several public employees have still faced unwarranted discrimination and removal from positions for simply exercising their lawful right to access medical cannabis,” Desiree Hennessy, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “SB 233 provides a long-awaited mechanism to encourage compliance with state law through the potential withholding of funding, helping to shield state workers from discrimination regarding their medication.”

Despite the bill’s bipartisan support in the state Senate, SB 233 is now facing public opposition. The Utah Eagle Forum, an influential socially conservative group, has come out against the bill, saying the measure would jeopardize public safety.

“This bill would penalize state agencies and political subdivisions that try to enforce safety regulations against a medical marijuana card holder,” Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Eagle Forum, wrote in an email to supporters. “This may allow a cardholder who may be impaired to work in positions, such as a heavy machine operator, a motor vehicle driver, or a child care provider. We must have exceptions and a way to protect the public.”

The statement from the group led to objections to the legislation from some lawmakers, including Senator Todd Weiler and Senator Mike Kennedy, both Republicans. However, Escamilla noted that there are provisions that prohibit workers from being under the influence of medical cannabis while on the job. She also noted that Utah’s medical marijuana laws do not allow police officers to register as patients because of conflicts with firearms laws.

Acknowledging the objections to the bill, Escamilla said that she is willing to negotiate with fellow lawmakers to modify the bill, including defining a specific percentage of funding cities would lose if they discriminate against medical marijuana patients.

Before SB 233 can become law, it must receive final approval in the Senate before heading to the Utah House of Representatives. If passed by the House, the measure would also require the signature of Republican Governor Spencer Cox.

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