Program to expand medical cannabis access in Utah stalls, frustrating patients and lawmakers

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Health has yet to implement a critical part of the state’s medical cannabis program, leaving patient advocates frustrated and lawmakers fuming.

“It was never intended to take this long,” said Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored a bill to dramatically expand the number of medical providers who can recommend cannabis to qualifying patients.

The bill was passed earlier this year following a FOX 13 investigation into the issue in 2019. People who qualified for medical cannabis found too few doctors willing or able to recommend it. For some patients, they went out of state and smuggled cannabis back in. Others went on the black market.

It also spawned a pop-up industry of some medical providers who are qualified charging someone anywhere from $300 to $600 per recommendation, until they reached their patient cap and moved on.

“A patient can’t get their regular care physician to do it, so they pay $300 and now they become a medical cannabis patient. Not because they knew them, or because they knew their history, because they would pay the cash,” said Desiree Hennessy, the executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition.

The bill passed by the legislature allowed medical providers to recommend cannabis for up to 15 patients without having to undergo the “Qualified Medical Provider” training required by the state. A QMP can recommend cannabis for up to 275 patients (up to 600 with special permission from the Utah Department of Health).

“The goal of that was to allow patients to have access to their current physician, and try to allow more physicians into the program, enticing them to become QMPs,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who oversees cannabis legislation for the GOP majority in the Utah legislature.

The limited medical provider program was supposed to be up and running in September. But lawmakers were surprised to find it had not been implemented at all. They discovered it at about the same time FOX 13 began inquiring about the program.

“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,” Sen. Escamilla told FOX 13. “It’s very frustrating and it doesn’t help us tackle a consumer protection issue.”

In a statement to FOX 13, the Utah Department of Health said there were software and staffing issues that led to the delay.

“Legislation passed during the 2021 Legislative Session that enabled any physician, APRN, or PA with a controlled substance license in Utah to recommend medical cannabis to up to 15 of their patients. Implementing the legislation required significant changes be made to the software used to run Utah’s medical cannabis program,” the agency said.

“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.”

Sen. Escamilla called the new timeline to roll out the program unacceptable.

“I am not going to consider that a real deadline,” she said. “That needs to happen sooner than that.”

Sen. Vickers said the delay will impact other medical cannabis bills. Lawmakers cannot determine how to proceed if they don’t know whether the program is successful or not.

“We’re going to do everything we can to work with the Department of Health, 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,” he said.

Sen. Escamilla said that if UDOH needs more resources, they will try to find it.

“If it’s a system issue, fix the system and make the changes,” she said. “If it’s a staffing issue, let’s get that taken care of. It’s a top priority.”

Hennessy said medical cannabis patients are frustrated, having been forced to now pay steep fees to get a card to be legal in Utah.

“The thing that we tried hardest not to create was ‘pot doctors,'” she said. “And we have created ‘pot doctors.'”

Some patients, Hennessy said, are choosing to stay on the black market to get their medicine. Sen. Escamilla said she shared the frustration and will push for it to be implemented by the first of the year.

“We will make it happen,” she said. “And truly, I apologize for having the execution side not being taken care of.”