Utah medical cannabis users report benefits from usage despite high costs

Michael Stonebarger sorts young cannabis plants at a marijuana farm operated by Greenlight, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, in Grandview, Mo. Utah cannabis cardholders report the benefits of usage for their health conditions while commenting on the high prices in Utah. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Utah cannabis cardholders report the benefits of usage for their health conditions while commenting on the high prices in Utah.

In a 2021 report released by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Medical Cannabis, 97% of surveyed participants reported benefits to their qualifying conditions. In addition, over 80% of participants reported improved symptoms and a decrease in use of other medications.

In Utah, cannabis is legal for medical purposes for 15 qualifying conditions, the most common being for chronic pain and PTSD, according to the report. In order to purchase cannabis, one must qualify and apply for a card through the Utah Department of Health and Human Services

Richard Oborne, director of Utah’s Center for Medical Cannabis, reported that 56,300 individuals in the state of Utah are active cardholders as of last month. According to Oborne, that number has been steadily growing since the program began in March of 2020.

In addition, Oborne said the number of pharmacies continues to grow, with a new pharmacy opening in Price, providing access to those who otherwise would have to travel up to 100 miles for products. 

Bryson Johnson, a Utah native and student at Utah Valley University, began using medical cannabis for the chronic pain induced by a severe accident that broke his spine in 2016. He sought many treatments to reduce his pain for a year with no success.

Johnson said initially, he didn’t like the idea of medical cannabis use. “I was raised in the Church and they teach you not to do a bunch of drugs. But after doing more research into it and talking to medical professionals about it, they kind of opened my eyes.” 

While it was a process to find the right dosage and adjust to the medical substance, he has since seen great improvements to his quality of life.

Johnson said things improved when he found the “sweet spot” for the right dosage for his condition. “I have been able to work five to six hours a day, where I couldn’t do that before. I’m able to have a better social life. It helps me feel like I can live more of a normal life,” he said. 

According to Millcreek resident Sammie Dolen who uses medical cannabis for her PTSD, the prices can be a burden. 

“Definitely in Utah it’s overpriced. The worst part of it, the part that gets the most expensive, is actually getting the medical card. The process is really expensive,” she said. 

While obtaining the card is a $15 fee, the requirement of meeting with a physician, renewing the card after six months, and the products themselves add up. She said a basic $20 1g cartridge in surrounding states is $60 in Utah, costing her around $240 monthly. 

Oborne said the increase in pricing is part of the program’s additional features that are not available elsewhere. One of those features is a pharmacist present in every cannabis pharmacy in Utah. Both Johnson and Dolen said pharmacists were a helpful resource in finding the right dosage for them.

In addition to the cost of the pharmacist, Oborne said another factor that impacts price is how much testing they conduct on Utah cannabis products. “The safety of Utah products, that comes with a cost,” he said.

While there are many factors that contribute to the higher prices of medical cannabis in Utah, this price increase may impede patients from accessing the relief they need. Because of the federal ban, insurance companies do not cover the costs of the products, leaving low-income patients on their own financially.

In an effort to provide relief for these individuals, organizations like the Utah Patients Coalition and UTTHC’s Uplift program seek to provide monetary help for individuals with financial need or terminal illness.

“Utah still has some room to grow as far as decreasing prices,” Oborne said. “There are some private entities that have stepped up, accepted donations, and with those donations they help make cannabis more affordable for low-income individuals who are not ordinarily able to afford it.” 

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