Utah lawmakers considering two medical marijuana bills

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

Utah lawmakers are considering two bills for the state to adopt a broader legal use for medical marijuana.

The Health and Human Service Committee will meet again on Nov. 18 to consider legislation for medical marijuana use. The committee proposed two bills for the 2016 session in a recent October meeting.

The first proposal, by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, would give up to 5,000 Utahns access to an oil extract from hemp plants for therapeutic purposes. Individuals with a “qualified illness” would register in state database for prescribed marijuana.

“Let’s not take a step that we’re going to regret later on,” Daw said. He said the bill’s primary goal is to do no harm and rely on what they know is effective. Daw’s proposes growing marijuana on 50 acres of land in the state under control of the Department of Agriculture.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, proposed the second potential bill, Senate Bill 259, during the 2015 legislative session. His bill would allow patients with epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder to access to medical marijuana.  “The rest of the world is so far ahead of us,” Madsen said.

Madsen’s bill to amend the current medical marijuana law did not pass the 2015 legislative session. While it passed a Senate committee, it did not make it through the full Senate. The bill allowed for licensed physicians to prescribe medicinal marijuana to patients with certain, defined illnesses. Madsen will reintroduce this bill for the 2016 Legislative Session.

Utah is a state with “limited access to marijuana products” as of 2014. Twelve other states have joined Utah in the limited-access category. Each of these states legalized limited use in the past two years. Limited-access allows for very restricted prescribed marijuana to a limited number of illnesses.

A Utah Policy poll from March 2015 reported that 66 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes under the prescription of a physician. States such as California, Alaska, Oregon and Washington started statewide practice of medical marijuana before 2000. Alaska, Oregon and Washington are also among the only states to have legalized recreational use of marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Colorado, which legalized broad use for medical marijuana in 2000, is the only additional state with legal recreational use for the drug. Yet a Gallup poll in October 2015 reported 58 percent of Americans back legal marijuana use. Polls show a steady increase in favoring legal recreational use of marijuana.

The polls show support increased from 30 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2009, and is at an all-time high in today in 2015. As support for marijuana increases, so does its use. CNN reported that 9.5 percent of adults used marijuana in the last year, up from 4.1 percent in 2002.

Concerned about the increase in recreational marijuana users, Utah lawmakers debated the benefits and risks of legalizing medical marijuana in several legislative meetings throughout 2015.

Medical experts weighed in during several state government meetings to inform government officials the medical benefits to legalizing medical marijuana in the state, as well as potential medical concerns. Utah lawmakers also are weary of the social ramifications, including moving towards legal recreational use of marijuana.

Jahan Marcu, the director of research and development at Green Standard Diagnostics in New York City, told lawmakers in an August legislative meeting that studies into medical marijuana show that benefits outweigh potential risks.

Marcu said in basic research models cannabis inhibits tumor growth and “is not linked to long-term cognitive deficits or negative health effects, regardless of the amount of use.” He said he believes cannabis can be grown safely, as any other agricultural product.

“We’re not talking about the street drug,” Marcu said. His research showed the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana that causes the psychological effects of the drug, “selectively” kills cancer cells in a petri dish environment.

Marcu said the argument that too little information exists on the effects of marijuana is “simply not true.” He argued that the studies conducted on marijuana are extensive. In 2014 alone, Marcu reported 2,331 studies conducted on marijuana’s medical benefits.

Annette E. Fleckenstein, deputy director of the Utah Addiction Center at the University of Utah, disagrees with Marcu. “There is not enough research yet on cannabis use in a variety of different disorders,” Fleckenstein said.

Fleckenstein said people should wait until the research catches up, “even if that means suffering through an illness.” She reported that marijuana is the “most commonly used illicit drug” with an estimated 19.8 million people who used the drug at least once in a 30 day period. She said she believes cannabidiol (CBD), one of the active ingredients in the drug that does not produce euphoria or intoxication, “appears to be a safe drug with no addictive effectives” but advocates more research.

Another concern Fleckenstein raised was the potential addictive side effect of marijuana. She found that 9 percent of individuals become dependent on the drug after medical use. However she noted that if the patient is an adolescent, 17 percent become dependent on the drug. She said her findings contradict the perception that marijuana use poses no serious risk, a common belief among adolescents.

Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, from the Thornton, Colorado Police Department and vice president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, agreed with Fleckenstein and told legislators that the medical benefits are not the only thing to consider when discussing medical marijuana legalization.

“You can’t ignore the fact, there’s a movement afoot here. And the movement is making marijuana available for use, recreationally or otherwise,” Gerhardt said.

He said he sees a pattern of people wanting more and more of the drug all the time. He said the debate does not end with legalizing medical marijuana use. He projects Utah will follow the Colorado’s pattern where citizens pushed for marijuana prescriptions for higher dosages and more illnesses.

“In Colorado what we’ve come to find is that there’s a theory that medical marijuana is a compassionate legal exception to the current drug laws,” Gerhardt said. “The problem is when you call it medicine it creates a sense of entitlement. It does create a substantial legal conundrum for those of us in public safety.”

Lynn Webster, a physician and vice president of Scientific Affairs at PRA Health Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he feels the medical marijuana debate “is an opportunity for Utah to lead.” He advocates more research in the state to help better define the risks and health benefits of marijuana.

“We must recognize that legislative action the Utah Legislature is considering is not exclusive, nor is it happening in a void,” Webster said. “Presently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have taken action to legalize medicinal marijuana. All of them have done so because they have felt the potential benefit outweighed the potential risk.”

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