The Utah Legislature has until March 8 to take up a bill regarding medical marijuana in the state, but many people who support legalization aren’t holding their breath.
Count local farmer and Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers among them.
Summers has become an outspoken supporter of medical marijuana after learning that the drug could help his 26-year-old son, Talon, who has an inflammatory condition that leaves him in a state of chronic pain. The medications that doctors are allowed to prescribe in Utah haven’t been very effective in helping manage Talon’s pain, and a growing body of research suggests that marijuana could be the best answer, Summers said.
Recent studies show that marijuana can be an effective pain management solution for people in a similar situation as Talon, and Summers’ frustration at the Legislature for its failure to act on the issue thus far is growing with each day he has to watch his son suffer.
“You don’t want to hold someone’s hand and tell them there’s nothing you can do for them,” he said. “If this is going to help him, let’s make it legal someway. Just make something legal so I don’t have to look behind my back when I’m trying to get him what he needs.”
Utah already has a provision allowing a narrow population of people with certain types of seizures to use oil infused with cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana that has demonstrated medicinal value. But Summers said that leaves out the vast majority of people who need marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of their illnesses, and it doesn’t allow for the use of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that produces the high, and also provides pain relief.
“There’s probably 100,000 people in the state who don’t fit the hole,” he said. “(The current law) doesn’t even come close to reaching everyone who needs it.”
Summers is not holding out much hope for progress on the issue this session, even though there are likely to be several proposals floated over the next five weeks. No one seems to be willing to take up the mantle, he said, ever since Utah County Senator Mark Madsen left the Legislature in 2016 following an unsuccessful attempt at legalization.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to take that problem,” Summers said. “It’s one of those things where no one wants to put their name on it, even though everybody wants it.”
The most recent polls suggest widespread public support for medical marijuana across the political spectrum in the state. Results released last week from a joint poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics show that 76 percent of Utah voters are in favor of medical marijuana – about the same level of support indicated by similar polls conducted in 2017. Those poll results include 64 percent of Republican respondents showing their support, as well as majorities of voters who aren’t necessarily affiliated with a political party, but identify themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative.”
Also, a recent poll by Dan Jones & Associates found that 76 percent of voters who identify as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints support the legalization of medical marijuana.
“Then you’ve got just a couple of naysayers,” Summers said, “
Summers said that based on conversations he has had, the Legislature will most likely wait and see what happens in the fall, as it appears likely there will be a ballot initiative put forth to voters in November of this year.
If the ballot measure were to pass, adults in Utah (or minors through a parent or legal guardian) would be able to receive a card to legally use marijuana from the Utah Department of Health based on a physician’s recommendation. The health department would start issuing the cards by March 1, 2020.
The initiative would also allow for the licensing of growing operations, testing laboratories, and dispensaries. The number of dispensaries allowed in a given area would be based on a population density formula, so patients in rural counties might have to travel to the Wasatch Front to obtain marijuana. Based on the current formula, one dispensary would be allowed in Box Elder County and up to eight in Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous county.
Dispensaries would be allowed to sell marijuana to card holders, and there are limits on the amount any one patient could buy in a given two-week period.
The measure also includes a provision that would allow card holders to grow up to six plants for personal use starting in 2021 – but only those who live more than 100 miles from the nearest dispensary. Other provisions would include bans on smoking marijuana, driving under the influence of the drug, or using it in public view except in medical emergencies. Marijuana would also be exempt from state sales tax.
Local governments would be limited in their ability to restrict medical marijuana-related activities, as they would be prohibited by the state from banning cultivation, processing, testing and dispensary facilities on the basis that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. They would be allowed to regulate times, locations and procedures for dispensing marijuana, and related businesses wouldn’t be allowed within 600 feet of schools, public parks, playgrounds, churches or libraries, or within 300 feet of residential areas.
A group called the Utah Patients Coalition is behind the effort to put the issue before voters. According to DJ Schanz, director of the coalition, the petition is on track to receive the nearly 113,000 signatures needed within a couple of weeks — about two months before the April 15 deadline.
Republican Rep. Scott Sandall of Tremonton isn’t planning to sponsor a bill on the issue, but said he supports legalization under the right conditions.
“I am very much in favor of medical marijuana if we can get it into a dosable form,” Sandall said. “It’s time for us to get into labs, break down the THC and cannabidiol (the compounds in marijuana on which most research is focused), get it into a pill or something else with so many parts of this and so many parts of that, and figure out how that affects a person of a certain weight. Otherwise, it’s a crap shoot on what a patient’s response will be.”
He said the Legislature approved some funding last year for marijuana-related research at the University of Utah, but their hands are tied because the substance is still illegal at the federal level.
Sandall would like to see a solution go through the Legislature, as he said ballot initiatives can be problematic. If voters approve the initiative, he said legislators would still have to go back and deal with the many specific provisions included, as the issue is still fraught with potential legal problems and other ramifications.
“Ballot initiatives are troublesome because they tend to be very narrowly focused,” he said. “If it passes, the legislature has to respond after its passing.”
While he remains frustrated with the slow pace in the Legislature on the issue, Summers sees plenty of reason for optimism as well, as he says he is witnessing a gradual change in attitude at the federal level as well. He has made trips to Washington, D.C. to testify and share his family’s experience, and believes that effort is helping to make an impact on policymakers.
“Eighteen months ago, Senator Hatch got on the Senate floor and talked about marijuana as a gateway drug, and after our interaction, he put in a bill to start federal trials (on marijuana research),” Summers said.
Meanwhile, he’s trying to make progress at the state level as well. He said he’s met with lobbyists for the LDS Church at the state capitol, one of whom told him “we’ve got to look out for the good of the whole.
“That’s telling me to look at the 99 and not the one,” he said. “I’ve been a card-carrying member (of the Church) my whole life, and I was never taught that.”
He said he understands the lingering perception of marijuana as a recreational drug, but believes times have changed, and state policy should be adjusted accordingly.
“We’re not talking about Cheech and Chong. We’re talking about right and wrong,” Summers said. “The generation of ‘get high and make love’ is gone, and the rest of us are just trying to get by.”