Bill threatens to cut cities' funding for targeting medical cannabis users

Posted at 7:05 PM, Feb 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-20 21:10:39-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill advancing in the Utah State Legislature threatens to cut funding from cities that refuse to recognize medical cannabis as a legitimate prescription drug.

Senate Bill 233 is being backed by two powerful lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill: Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. The two are tasked by the Utah State Senate with running medical cannabis legislation.

Sen. Escamilla's bill makes a number of small changes to the state's medical cannabis program, which has been in place since 2018 when voters approved a citizen ballot initiative legalizing it. But it also cracks down on a problem she said has emerged where some cities refuse to abide by state law.

FOX 13 News reported on the problem in 2021 when lawmakers tried to address it at the time.

After voters approved medical cannabis and the legislature adopted a tightly-regulated program, the legislature took the approach that cannabis ought to be treated like any other prescription drug. It is a controlled substance, but it is no different than any other prescription.

But the Senate Minority Leader said a handful of cities have refused to recognize medical cannabis as legitimate, going so far as to question city workers if they have a medical cannabis card and disciplining those who do.

"At the end of the day they are in violation of state law," Sen. Escamilla said. "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."

Sen. Vickers agreed and suggested the solution was to force compliance by threatening to withhold some funding for it.

But the bill, which unanimously passed a critical vote in the Senate, is suddenly finding itself facing headwinds. The Utah Eagle Forum, a social conservative group, has mobilized against it.

"This bill would penalize state agencies and political subdivisions that try to enforce safety regulations against a medical marijuana card holder. This may allow a card holder 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," said Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Eagle Forum, in an email to supporters.

That brought some objections from Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine.

Sen. Escamilla said there are provisions to guard against someone who may show up impaired on the job. In fact, law enforcement officers are explicitly carved out of the law allowing medical cannabis because of conflicting laws with firearms.

Still, she said she is willing to negotiate with lawmakers on modifications, including allocating a percentage of funding being lost, but wanted cities to comply with what is already Utah policy and law.

The Utah Patients Coalition said it supported her 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," said Desiree Hennessy, the group's executive director. "SB233 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."