Utah lawmakers have approved a bill to protect the rights of medical cannabis patients employed by government agencies. Under the bill, SB46, the state and local governments would be required to treat medical cannabis recommendations the same as prescriptions for other controlled substances.
The legislation provides protection from discrimination in health care and public employment for medical cannabis patients. Republican Rep. Joel Ferry, the House floor sponsor of the bill, said that the law is designed to protect patients legally using cannabis under Utah’s Medical Cannabis Act, which was passed by voters in 2018.
“What this bill does is it provides some clarity to what the legislative intent was… in recognizing medical cannabis as a legitimate use of cannabis for treating certain ailments such as chronic pain,” said Ferry, as quoted by the Deseret News.
The legislation was approved by the Utah House of Representatives on Wednesday by a vote of 68-4 after passing by a margin of 26-1 in the state Senate last month. The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Spencer Cox for final approval.
Medical Cannabis Patient Who’s a Firefighter Was Suspended
Utah lawmakers drafted the legislation after an Ogden firefighter was suspended without pay in September of last year for refusing to surrender his medical marijuana card. The firefighter, Levi Coleman, subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city and the fire department, arguing that the action violated the Medical Cannabis Act.
The legislation received nearly unanimous approval in both houses of the Utah legislature. Republican Rep. Timothy Hawkes was one of the four to vote against the bill in the House. Hawkes said he feared the bill would give a “get out of jail free card” to people who use “street marijuana” recreationally.
Some lawmakers expressed reservations that the bill would allow public employees to work while high. The legislation has no effect on private employers.
But Ferry told his colleagues in the House on Wednesday that the legislation does not prevent public agencies from disciplining employees who are intoxicated or impaired while on the job.
“We already have extensive provisions for… people where medical cannabis interferes with their ability to do their job, that’s all in the law,” agreed Republican Rep. Norm Thurston. “All this says is, the simple, additional act of seeking a card is not going to subject you to being fired from your job.”
Rep. Kera Birkeland, also a Republican, said that she appreciated those concerned about public employees working under the influence of medical cannabis.
“But if we wanted to go down every controlled substance that we have and talk about abuse, every profession, and everybody would be at times possibly abusing,” Birkeland said, adding, “I mean, I’ll be honest, sometimes I take two muscle relaxers when I’m only supposed to take one, right?”
“We don’t come down on that,” she continued. “I think we need to let people work through this issue with their physicians and support and provide education and training on how to not abuse substances, instead of just saying, ‘You might abuse this and so we’re not going to let you have this drug and have this profession.’”
Other lawmakers noted that the bill was contrary to federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. But Republican Rep. Ken Ivory said the bill is a matter of states’ rights under the U.S. Constitution and that Utah is protecting its citizens’ interests despite the position of the federal government.
“The founders and the framers looked to the states to look at policy, to look at things that make sense for their people,” Ivory said.
“States are separate and independent sovereigns, and sometimes they need to act like it,” Ivory added, quoting U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.