Despite thirty-seven states having active legal cannabis programs, all is not necessarily well across the country. Many state programs still suffer from access problems. Others cannot seem to get over supply and demand hurdles. And according to annual data compiled by Americans for Safe Access (ASA), just seven states demonstrated improvement in their programs In 2021.
ASA relies on a grading system to rank state performance. The system accounts for a hundred different data categories in determining how successful state cannabis programs are. For 2021, the average state grade was just 44%. The highest grade achieved was 76%.
It should be noted that ASA is not the be-all-and-end-all of cannabis program grading. Nonetheless, their annual assessment is a key tool used by state lawmakers working on legislation to improve their respective programs.
Progress in Utah
It is nice to see that Utah is among that group of states whose programs saw improvement in 2021. It was once thought that Utah would never have a medical cannabis program at all, let alone one of the most progressive programs in the country. State legislators have gone to great lengths to keep the program moving forward.
According to Deseret Wellness, a state medical cannabis pharmacy based in Provo, the two most important improvements for this year are:
1. Limited Medical Provider Program
During the 2021 legislative session, state lawmakers approved what is being called the Limited Medical Provider (LMP) program. This program allows any physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or orthopedist with prescribing authority to recommend medical cannabis without undergoing any additional training or applying for special certification. The only caveat is that LMPs can only recommend cannabis to up to fifteen patients. By contrast, Qualified Medical Providers (QMPs) can recommend cannabis for up to 275 patients.
2. Longer Card Terms
Another significant improvement in Utah is the implementation of longer card terms. Prior to the first of 2022, initial medical cannabis cards in Utah were good for ninety days. That has been extended to six months. Extending the term reduces some of the backlog and makes it easier for a core group of patients to access medical cannabis without having to worry about immediate renewal.
Both changes in state law demonstrate a willingness among legislators to improve the Utah program. Lawmakers in other states are looking at their own programs as well. Some are making improvements that score well on the annual ASA assessment, others are not. It is really a mixed bag at this point.
Possible Federal Decriminalization
It could be that some of the states not demonstrating improvement in 2021 are waiting around to see what Washington does. The U.S. Senate promised decriminalization in 2021, but they could never get a bill to the floor for a vote. A new round of bills has been introduced again for 2022. If one makes it to the floor and passes, the House of Representatives will get its own bill through very quickly.
Federal decriminalization will not necessarily eliminate state regulations. In fact, one of the more popular Senate bills now circulating calls for regulating cannabis in a way similar to how alcohol is regulated. The federal government maintains overall authority while states are allowed to implement additional regulations.
The net effect is that Utah could still prohibit recreational cannabis even if Washington decriminalizes marijuana. We will have to wait to see if that happens. In the meantime, it is expected that Utah and the other six states mentioned in the ASA report will pick up in 2022 where they left off in 2021. Perhaps other states will follow.