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What Happened to Medical Cannabis in Utah?

25 April 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Utah’s new "Cannabis Research Law" undermines its own purpose while patients continue to wait for relief and access. 

Earlier this year, we listed the potential for legalization of medical cannabis as one of the potential bright spots of the 2017 Legislative Session. If you recall, there was a serious and promising debate over access to medical cannabis during the 2016 Legislative Session, with outgoing State Senator Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs) as the champion of patients in need of medical cannabis.

Well, what started as a bright spot quickly dwindled to a dim compromise that left few patients and advocates satisfied.

To give us an expert view on what happened to dampen the possibility of legalized use of cannabis for medical purpose, for this legislative session at least, we asked our colleagues at TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use & Cannabis Education) to share their thoughts. Many thanks to Christine Stenquist and Thomas Paskett for their collaboration.

The 2017 General Session of the Utah Legislature saw our lawmakers once again addressing the issue of medical cannabis. While there were several bills in the works leading up to the session, these were either abandoned or combined with others by the time the session was in full swing. Of the two medical cannabis bills that were heard during the session, only one passed: HB130, "Cannabanoid Research," sponsored by Rep. Brad Daw (R-Orem) and Sen. Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City).

The so-called “Cannabinoid Research” bill was praised by both supporters and opponents of cannabis legalization. However, although furthering our understanding of cannabis is undoubtedly a worthy goal, this new law does not adequately address the concerns of Utah patients and it severely undermines its own intent to allow for full research of the potential benefits of the plant.

At first glance, legislation allowing the research of cannabis sounds like a positive step on the road towards making the plant available to patients. However, the language of the law is not so straightforward. There are several reasons to be less than thrilled with the passage of HB130. Specifically, 

  • The law places a great deal of decision making power in a Cannabinoid Product Board that will not include any direct patient representation and allows too much room for politics to dictate membership appointment.
  • It does not allow for the most common method of ingestion - inhalation - for research purposes.
  • Perhaps most problematic of all, it does not appear that the law provides researchers with ready access to quality samples of cannabis for their studies.

Because HB130 requires researchers to obtain cannabis either from another state as long as the “importation complies with federal law,” or from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), it seems unlikely that quality samples of cannabis could be obtained for study.

The federal Agricultural Act of 2014 provides a route to possible legal research by allowing states, under the supervision of the DEA, to establish pilot industrial hemp programs that allow for the growing, processing, and exportation of industrial hemp. However, industrial hemp often lacks the same potency and medicinal quality that is offered by the more widely known and publicly familiar cannabis cultivars that are grown in states that have legalized the plant for medicinal and adult personal use. Additionally, very few states have opted to enroll in the pilot program offered by the Agricultural Act of 2014 resulting in a fledgling industry that is severely lacking in exportation capacity.

When it comes to obtaining cannabis samples from one of the many states that have legalized cannabis to some degree within their borders, federal law seems quite clear: Utah researchers are legally barred from importing cannabis from any of those states because to do so is to break federal law. Those states like Colorado and California that have implemented comprehensive programs for regulating and legalizing cannabis have done so in defiance of federal law. Trafficking violations still come with serious mandatory minimum sentences within the federal criminal justice system.

Further, many state programs have provisions that prevent transferring cannabis to another state and most license holders can lose their permit to grow if found in violation of state law regarding cannabis. The far more likely source of cannabis samples to be obtained by Utah researchers would be from NIDA.

Currently, there is only a single facility, run by the University of Mississippi, which possesses a DEA-issued license to grow cannabis for research purposes. This source would be promising if it were not for the fact that researchers have complained that it has taken them years to obtain cannabis samples from NIDA and that the samples they finally did receive tested positive for mold and heavy metals effectively nullifying any useful study of the plant.

If there are no adequate sources of cannabis for Utah researchers to study what is the point of having a cannabis research program? And even if NIDA produced quality cannabis, can Utah patients afford to wait two or more years just to see the results of research that might eventually lead to legalization?

Again, to be clear, any efforts to better understand and broaden our knowledge of cannabis should be considered a positive step. But such efforts should be made in good faith and without arbitrary restrictions that limit the study of a plant that has been shown by many peer-reviewed studies to have a number of known beneficial uses for patients in need.

While we applaud the efforts of our lawmakers to further our understanding of cannabis, we do not believe that this law is capable of providing scientists and researchers with the tools necessary to accomplish that goal. Further, we would like to suggest that the state look into existing research done by world leading researchers both foreign and domestic to see how those studies were conducted and take measures to validate their promising findings.

Utah doesn’t have to start from scratch, as some of our lawmakers seem to think. By validating and then building off of existing research, Utah has the potential to be a leader for our nation in cannabis research and education. But we must go about such efforts with sensibility, reason, and compassion for the patients who continue to wait for relief.

Learn more about local efforts to bring the issue of medical cannabis directly to the people of Utah, via ballot initiative, at the TRUCE website.

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