A bill to approve medical cannabis passed its first hurdle with a favorable recommendation from a Senate committee this week, but some local health care officials are expressing reservations.
The Bear River Health Department, which reportedly did not know of the bill until Thursday, issued a statement from Executive Director Lloyd Berentzen.
“At first glance, this bill appears to open the door for broad interpretation and the potential for abuse,” Berentzen said. “Our strong caution is that similar legislation in other states has become a gateway for recreational use. The Bear River Health Department opposes any enacting legislation that might enable abuse and potential risk to the public similar to other mind altering drugs.”
Senate Bill 259, introduced Wednesday by Sen. Mark Madsen and quickly put on the next day’s agenda for the committee he chairs, would allow people with certain illnesses to register with the State Tax Commission so they can possess and use cannabis and cannabis products.
Last year, the Legislature passed “Charlee’s Law,” which allows people with epilepsy to have trial access to a non-intoxicating cannabis oil to treat seizures.
Dr. Jim Davis, speaking as a physician and not for any employers or boards he represents, said he cannot support Madsen’s bill at this point. Davis has spoken before about his concerns with marijuana, a common name for cannabis, while on the Bear River Board of Health.
As the bill stands, those with a “qualifying illness,” such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder or a condition that produces severe pain, would receive a medical cannabis patient card to purchase cannabis from licensed establishments that are supplied by licensed growers.
One of Davis’ concerns is abuse of the system.
“It is my opinion that medical marijuana has demonstrated the tendency to open the door for widespread misuse of the medical card for recreational use,” he said.
Davis’ opinion reflects a widespread belief that in states where medical use of marijuana is legal, such as California, that it has been abused, and that it eventually leads to legalized recreational use.
Colorado, for instance, legalized limited use of medical marijuana in 2000, and voters approved legalizing recreational use in 2012. The first stores for recreational use officially opened Jan. 1, 2014.
Davis also added that, as a physician, he wouldn’t prescribe cannabis as a first-line treatment. There are other prescription drugs, some containing active components of cannabis, legally on the market.
“There are no medical conditions that I know of or am aware of for which smoking marijuana is the best treatment available,” he said.
Davis said he supports further research on marijuana, since people have said it eases their health problems. At this point, there is not good enough medical research on the subject.
However, legalizing the ability to smoke marijuana for medical reasons brings a “legal, social, medical can of worms,” with issues like not being sure of the dose, side affects, or purity of what is being smoked, not to mention the problems associated with second-hand smoke.
“I think that the real research is going to show that there are some benefits,” he said, adding that it is likely the future of cannabis is in a synthetic form or marijuana-based extracts delivered in ways other than smoking.
The argument made by many, particularly those who testified Thursday, is how cannabis can be used as a natural medical treatment.
Tenille Farr spoke in favor of the bill while holding her infant at a press conference after the committee meeting.
“I’m just a mom who got cancer when I was pregnant,” Farr said. “And cannabis allowed me to have this little baby chemo-free and healthy, and at the same time get rid of many of the symptoms that I had due to cancer.”
Farr explained that she moved to a different state where medical use of cannabis is legal to medicate with cannabis juice, which does not give users a high, during her pregnancy.
“It helped me to stay healthy enough to deliver a healthy baby,” she said.
The Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice committee passed the medical cannabis bill, SB259, out of committee with a vote of 3-2 on Thursday. People packed the Senate committee as individuals and their families shared diverse views on both medical marijuana and the proposed bill by Madsen.
“There are people who are being denied relief and treatment because of public policy,” Madsen said.
Madsen shared his personal research about medical marijuana, including trying cannabis, in an attempt to overcome the stigma of the plant. He additionally expressed the concern that some individuals were fearful to testify because they use cannabis in the state.
As far as comments from the governmental parties involved, many parties did not have a firm position on the bill or how the bill would affect them, because of the lack of time between the presentation of the bill and the meeting held Thursday morning. However, a department that did speak about execution concerns was the State Tax Commission.
“This bill in its present form is not a tax bill,” said John Valentine, Utah Tax Commission chair. “We are at a quandary as to how to make this bill work. The problem is not in the legalization of the marijuana, but in the funds that go with it. Those funds are tainted in the eyes of the federal government.”
The commission’s concern is that there is no infrastructure to keep the money that originates from funds and fees specified in this bill. Specifically, that banks and credit unions will not handle these funds because of federal paperwork of handling drug money.
Opponents and supporters voiced their opinions representing the haze revolving around cannabis for medical usage. Linda Nelson, one of those with concerns, said, “I sympathize with people with problems, but I would never short circuit the FDA. We need to depend on the science and the facts, but I’m anxious to see the facts.”
Opponents are mainly concerned about the unforeseen effects of using medical marijuana, as well as the ability to enforce the potential bill. Specifically, some fear that there will be issues of theft and that a competitive market for cannabis would be created through drug dealers selling the product at a lower price.
Meanwhile, others seem more optimistic regarding the bill, claiming that Utah is different than Colorado, and that Utah will be more successful with this type of legislation. Additionally, several individuals for the bill claim that this type of legislation would be a win for state amendment rights.
Ultimately, the bill has farther to go before becoming a law, but it has passed its first hurdle.