Summit County Health Department Director Rich Bullough sat down with elected officials on Wednesday for the first time since the Utah Legislature passed the Medical Cannabis Act to discuss what the county’s role will be in distributing the product.
The Medical Cannabis Act, passed on Dec. 3, outlines the processes for cultivation, medical recommendation and patient use of medical marijuana. It overhauled Proposition 2 in favor of a more tightly controlled industry with a significant amount of state oversight.
While the Medical Cannabis Act, touted as a compromise to Proposition 2, still allows for the distribution of medical marijuana to people who qualify, it requires the local health departments to take on an active role. It establishes a state-run central fill site where medical marijuana will be distributed to the health departments. The Utah Department of Health and Agriculture will be responsible for tracking the product and users.
“This notion of being a dispensary is, obviously, Summit County’s primary concern,” Bullough said.
Bullough briefly talked about his concerns with the Medical Cannabis Act. He said Summit County health officers were not consulted in the process and it came as a surprise that “we were being written into this piece of legislation.” But, he added, health officers have generally been supportive.
“I’ve been looking hard for conflicts with public health and haven’t found any,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily counter to our mission. But, I do still have some concerns about how we can do this right.”
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Bullough, along with Summit County Deputy Sheriff Frank Smith, spent nearly an hour going over details of the Medical Cannabis Act with elected officials. They talked about where the county could potentially distribute the product from, security and law enforcement impacts, as well as the costs of distribution.
Bullough said the county could use the Health Department in Quinn’s Junction to distribute the product to patients or select a separate, standalone site somewhere else.
However, he expressed serious apprehension about having medical cannabis patients come to the Health Department because it is a shared space with the People’s Health Clinic and the site is not served by the Park City transit system.
But, he said it would be the easiest and cheapest way to do it. Bullough estimated it would cost roughly $50,000 a year.
“Health officers across the state are all over the continuum with this from selecting a new space and bringing in law enforcement to just having individuals coming to the front window to pick up their pack,” he said. “I have met with the Sheriff’s Office and I think we agree it is a bigger deal than that. There has to be a certain level of security, and I talked specifically with Sheriff (Justin) Martinez about this because you are putting people at risk. You are changing what they do.”
Bullough said that is reflected in the legislation. Employees who will be distributing the product will need to undergo training and pass a background check.
Another option would be to have a separate facility, preferably on the transit line. Bullough said there would need to be security and a storage space that those working in the dispensary could access. Some health departments are considering something as simple as a gun safe for storing the product.
“What’s important for you all to understand is that there won’t be money exchanged and it won’t be big volumes,” he said. “We will have a limited amount to distribute and if that is not picked up within 24 or 48 hours, it will go back to the central fill site.”
The legislation does allow for 15 licenses statewide for private dispensaries. If a license is granted for a dispensary in the county, the health department could defer to them for distribution, taking the burden off of the county, Bullough said.
Roger Armstrong, County Council chair, said on Thursday it is rare for a county to serve as a purveyor of medicine. He added, “It is an unusual situation.”
Armstrong said he is more inclined to support the product being distributed out of the Health Department in Quinn’s Junction because it would cost less. But, he admitted it hasn’t been determined whether the county would have to foot the entire bill. The Legislature has suggested it would provide some assistance, but exactly how much is unclear.
Armstrong doesn’t see security issues as the greatest risk the county faces. He said he is more worried about the Health Department’s risk of losing federal funding. Seventy-five percent of the Health Department’s budget comes from federal dollars and fees. Federally, marijuana remains illegal in all forms.
“I think the current administration has not had a consistent policy for the entire two years of that administration with how it will treat states that have medical marijuana,” he said. “If it can be used as a threat by the administration against a county, that causes some concern.”
The county has until March 2020 to figure everything out.
As the meeting came to an end, Bullough said he is seeking input from elected officials because “ultimately the county buildings are yours.”
“I would like information about their use and whether or not you are supportive of a dispensary being in the current Health Department location or if you are not supportive of that I need that to be clear as well,” he said. “I don’t believe that is my decision.”