Medical marijuana patients in Utah are frustrated, and cannabis operators are losing business. In March, legislators signed a measure to increase access to Utah’s medical marijuana program into law. The Utah Department of Health still hasn’t implemented the changes.
They drafted the measure after reports of exorbitant fees by qualified medical cannabis providers (a pop-up industry of medical providers charging anywhere from $300 to $600 per recommendation, who then move on after they reach their patient cap) and a lack of participating physicians. Some patients resorted to traveling out of state and smuggling cannabis back in. Others went to the illegal market.
“We wanted to stop the predatory practices of charging this ridiculous amounts of money to patients that need the care and access to this medicine,” said Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla.
The measure will enable medical providers to recommend cannabis for up to 15 patients without undergoing “Qualified Medical Provider” training. A Qualified Medical Provider can recommend cannabis for up to 275 patients or, with special permission from the Utah Department of Health, up to 600 patients.
“The goal of that was … to allow more physicians into the program, enticing them to become QMPs,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who oversees cannabis legislation for the GOP majority in the Utah legislature.
Utah’s Department of Health claims the delays result from staffing issues and the software for provider enrollment requiring significant changes.
“As our office scoped out the software changes necessary to implement the legislation, we encountered significant and unanticipated staffing challenges, and this was a major factor that caused us to fall short of timely implementation of this legislation. It is important to the department that this legislation is implemented in software that protects patient information and that ensures full compliance with Utah laws. We’re continuing work to implement the required software changes and anticipate being able to do so by mid-2022,” the agency said.
Lawmakers are also frustrated by the logjam. The DOH delay impacts other medical cannabis bills, and without knowing whether the program is successful lawmakers cannot determine how to proceed. Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers oversees cannabis legislation for the GOP majority in the Utah legislature.
“We’re going to do everything we can … including putting a little pressure to see that we get the LMP up and working and try to get as many access to patients and physicians,” said Vickers
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla considers the issue a top priority.
“If it’s a system issue, fix the system and make the changes,” said Escamilla. “If it’s a staffing issue, let’s get that taken care of.”
Utah has the lowest number of adult-use cannabis consumers per capita, but since launching in March 2020, Utah’s medical marijuana market has been growing steadily despite the current delays. In all of 2020, sales reached $22.1 million. According to a recent state report, sales are more than $6 million per month, exceeding all industry projections. There were 35,053 MMJ patient cardholders as of September, according to state data.
“The thing that we tried hardest not to create was ‘pot doctors,'” said Desiree Hennessy, the executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition. “And we have created ‘pot doctors.'”