Advocates of medical marijuana fight for legalization in Utah

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A graphic showing which states currently legalize marijuana, both medical and recreational.

Medical marijuana advocate continue the push to make to drug a legal healthcare option for Utah residents.

Utah Legislators continue to clash as the debate regarding the legalization of medical marijuana picks up momentum. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, is seen as the champion of legalizing medical marijuana in the state, while other legislators like Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said more research is necessary to decrease negative side effects of legalization.

The chemicals of marijuana, called cannabinoids, are used by individuals in an effort to alleviate seizures caused by childhood epilepsy. The FDA states on its website that those suffering from “glaucoma, AIDS wasting syndrome, neuropathic pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea and certain seizure disorders” have been eager to test medical marijuana.

Madsen said Utah residents have the right to try medical marijuana in attempt to improve their quality of life.

“My default position is (that) I trust the people more than I trust government, and I believe in freedom more than I believe in government control,” said Madsen in a recorded address at the Libertas Institute forum at the Provo Library. 

Madsen is currently revising a bill that would legalize certain forms of marijuana for medicinal purposes. A previous version of this bill failed to pass the Utah Senate by one vote in March.

Madsen said his bill calls for strict regulations that would “limit the patients, the conditions and also the physicians” involved in medical marijuana distribution to carefully track its presence within the state.

Madsen’s bill calls for medical marijuana to be distributed through an oil or pill rather than combustion in order to provide the most help to patients.

“Experts in the field tell me you’re burning off about a third of the medicine and are also combusting the tars and organic material,” Madsen said. “It’s just an unhealthy way to take your medicine.”

A bill passed in 2014 allows Utah residents to use this oil form to treat their children with epilepsy, but only if the oil is purchased in another state that allows medical marijuana, such as Colorado or California. Madsen will introduce a revised edition of his bill later this year to simplify the process for Utah residents who choose to use medical marijuana to treat symptoms from conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and nerve pain.

Opponents of the bill are skeptical, saying Madsen’s plan will not prevent negative consequences of legal medical marijuana.

“Cannabis is not the benign substance that Senator Madsen claims it is,” said Jo Ann Petrie, a Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. Petrie, a coalition member of the Substance Misuse and Abuse Reduction Team, argued that the harm Madsen’s bill would bring to Utah outweighs the benefits. She said legalizing medical marijuana would be dangerous for Utah, considering the alarming levels of prescription abuse already prevalent.

“In 2007 (Utah) had more deaths from prescribed, legal opiate pain pills than from car crash deaths,” Petrie said.

Daw, also a member of the Substance Misuse and Abuse Reduction Team, is open to exploring medical marijuana, but only after more scientific evidence can substantiate its medical effectiveness.

“Let’s take one step . . . to the line instead of rushing into the dark,” Daw said.

Madsen disagreed with this approach, citing the pressing needs that many Utah residents have to find solutions to painful, limiting medical conditions.

“There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence,” Daw said. “But there really hasn’t been any double-blind study research to tell us exactly how effective it is under a variety of conditions.” Daw is drafting a bill that will encourage research into the effectiveness of medical marijuana before legalizing its distribution to the public.

States like Florida, New Hampshire and Kentucky have taken a similar to the bill Daw is writing, while other states like Colorado and California have left the use of marijuana to the discretion of its citizens. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form.

Earlier in June Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to permit the production and distribution of CBD, a cannabinoid with medicinal purposes that does not produce a “high.” This law allows patients to get the relief they want but maintains controls on the type of medical marijuana circulating throughout the state.

While both Daw and Madsen are optimistic about the potential effectiveness of medical marijuana both need to continue to build support for their bills within the legislature and among residents.

“We want some way to laboratory-certify the output and to make sure that the content of the oil and the product is consistent and understood and known,” Daw said.

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