Utah lawmakers have voted unanimously to approve a bill that hands control of the state’s medical marijuana market to private retailers.

It means Utah is officially abandoning controversial plans to create a state-run medical cannabis dispensary network, while the number of private dispensaries will be ramped up. The Utah Senate approved the bill via a 21-0 vote and the House voted 66-0 in favour of it in a special session on Monday night. It has now been sent to Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk to be signed into law.

A midterm election in November 2018 resulted in 53% of voters approving Proposition 2, which paved the way for private medical marijuana dispensaries to launch across the state. Patients could access medical cannabis if they suffer from conditions including multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.

Herbert signed it into law the following month, but lawmakers then courted huge controversy by replacing the scheme with a different initiative. It reduced the number of permitted dispensaries from 40 to just 7, and ensured that the state health department would run the program.

That decision was met with extensive disapproval from patient groups, marijuana activists and the medical cannabis industry. Some accused Utah of ignoring voters’ will, while the Epilepsy Association of Utah decided to sue the state.

Meanwhile, attorneys expressed concern that such a system would put public employees at risk of being prosecuted under federal drug laws. Medical marijuana remains illegal at a federal level, despite many states legalizing it.

All these concerns piled pressure on the state and it caved. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers introduced a bill to scrap the plans in a special legislative session, and lawmakers have now passed it.

It should allow the sort of system that people voted for to actually come into effect. The first 8 retailers should launch by March 2020, and then a further six will be given the green light, taking the total to 14. The exact location of the dispensaries has not yet been disclosed.

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