Utah Senate's Top Cannabis Opponent Also A Leading Opioid Seller

By Paul Gaita 08/09/19

Evan Vickers and his family operate two pharmacies that, according to the DEA database, both distribute more prescription painkillers to the region than Walmart. 

Evan Vickers, Utah Senate's top cannabis opponent
Photo via YouTube

A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) database that tracks national distribution of pharmaceutical opiates revealed a connection between Utah Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers—one of the state's leading opponents of medical cannabis programs—and a chain of pharmacies that distributes a substantial amount of prescription opioids in the Beehive State.

Vickers (R-District 28) and his family operate two pharmacies that, according to the DEA database, both distribute more prescription painkillers to the area than Walmart. 

At the same time, Vickers has been one of Utah's most prominent opponents of medical cannabis and a driving force behind restrictive legislation that limits availability of qualified prescribing doctors and dispensaries.

Coverage of the DEA database has led to questions about conflicts of interest on the part of Vickers, who issued a statement to a Utah television station that downplayed the amount of opioids distributed by his pharmacies while highlighting the flaws in the legalization bill that he helped to rework.

As both Medium and High Times reported, the Washington Post initially released the information from the DEA database that highlighted the distribution record of Vickers' pharmacies. This included the number of opioid pills distributed in the United States between 2006 and 2012—76 billion—and the six companies that distributed the bulk of the drugs, including Cardinal Health, which as Medium noted is the top distributor for Vickers' pharmacies. 

Cedar City Overdose Epidemic

The searchable database also revealed that the two locations in Cedar City, Utah—the largest city in Iron County, which is one of three counties that Vickers represents—distribute 34% of the opioid pills to the county, which surpasses the amount sold through Walmart in the region. Utah news reported in 2017 that Iron City was in the midst of an epidemic of heroin overdoses.

The revelation of the pharmacies' distribution record was a red flag for cannabis legalization advocates, given Vickers' longtime opposition to medical cannabis in Utah.

As Medium noted, he was a primary figure in efforts to quell cannabis bills from 2015 to 2018, when Proposition 2, which supported the legalization of marijuana for patients with qualifying illnesses, was approved for inclusion on the ballot by voters.

Less than a month later, Vickers sponsored a compromise bill, which High Times said was a collaboration between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and lawmakers to alter Proposition 2.

The result was new legislation, H.B. 3001, sponsored by Vickers, which as Medium noted, took a far more restrictive approach to medical cannabis by reducing dispensaries and delaying patient access until at least 2021. H.B. 3001 has since generated a lawsuit by patient advocacy groups against the state.

Response to the news from legalization groups was damning.

"When we saw the outrageous numbers of opiates that Vickers is dispensing, it was alarming to us," said Christine Stenquist, founder and executive director of Together for Responsible Cannabis Education (TRUCE), which is one of the groups behind the state lawsuit. "Even more alarming is that this man is trying to prohibit cannabis from coming into the state."

In a statement to Utah's KUTV, Vickers said that opioids comprise just 7% of his pharmacies' total prescription volume, and decried charges of undermining Proposition 2 as "irresponsible."

He described his work on the compromise bill as a collaboration with community leaders and bill sponsors to "move forward" with medical marijuana while also addressing public safety concerns from his constituents. Vickers also noted that residents in the three counties he represents all voted against Proposition 2.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.