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The Future of Medical Marijuana in Utah

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By Bill Weinberg

Last week, the Utah Lt. Governor’s Office released figures that show organizers behind a medical marijuana ballot measure have met the minimum number of signatures required to put the question before voters this November. Activists gathered 200,000 signatures in 27 of Utah’s 29 state senate districts. This puts them over the necessary 26 districts and minimum of 113,000 signatures, and setting up for a showdown over the future of medical marijuana in Utah.

“The Utah Patients Coalition is excited to have achieved a huge first step in the fight to help patients gain access to the treatments and medicine they need,” said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, speaking to Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 News on April 20.

Christine Stenquist of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), a Utah-based cannabis advocacy group, added: “The will of the people is being heard loud and clear. Today is an important milestone on the road to safe access to medicinal cannabis for Utah’s patients. It’s an emotional day for those who have fought for and hoped so desperately for relief from their suffering.”

The Lt. Governor’s Office has until May 15 to officially certify which ballot initiatives have made it over the bar. But it is looking good for the Utah Medical Cannabis Act.

The state bureaucracy, however, appears to be preparing for a far less ambitious measure that is now pending in the state house — which would allow for medical use of cannabidiol (CBD) extracts, but not herbaceous cannabis or preparations containing THC. An accompanying measure would legalize cultivation of industrial hemp — that is, cannabis with near-zero THC. The idea is that CBD products would be derived from the hemp.

On April 19, officials from Utah’s Department of Agriculture & Food met with business owners, farmers and patient advocates to receive their input before undertaking the drafting of regulations to oversee hemp and CBD production, Deseret News reported.

The legislation was launched in response to the fact that CBD products are already being sold at several retail outlets in the state in violation of the law. Especially forcing the issue was the case of Ed Hendershot, an antique dealer in Heber City who was cited by state authorities last year for selling a Colorado-produced CBD preparation from his store.

“It has nothing to do with THC… It’s hemp-grade CBD,” said Sen. Evan Vickers, a Cedar City pharmacist and sponsor of the bill, speaking to the Salt Lake Tribune, in words apparently intended to assuage the social conservatives who have mobilized against the ballot measure. “Technically it’s illegal by the DEA. But they are not enforcing that.”

In March, Utah’s governor signed into law another measure that allowed the use of herbaceous marijuana — but only by the terminally ill, defined as those expected to die within six months. However, the law stipulated that the cannabis could only be grown by a state contractor and sold through a state-run dispensary, which have yet to be approved.

These cautious measures would basically be rendered irrelevant by the ballot measure, if it passes in November. The proposed Medical Cannabis Act would make herbaceous marijuana available to all approved patients and eliminate the restrictions on THC. This would inherently allow for the use of either high-CBD herbaceous varieties or CBD products prepared from medical-grade cannabis rather than industrial hemp.

So, two very different models for a medical marijuana program seem to be racing toward the finish line in Utah. With the continued opposition of the Utah Medical Association and Gov. Gary Herbert, the challenge has just begun for proponents of Medical Cannabis Act.

But Medical Cannabis Act advocates can take encouragement in a write-up in a local paper, the Ogden Standard Examiner, which fact-checked the Utah Medical Association’s arguments against the measure. The analysis finds some of the UMA’s claims — for instance, that the Utah ballot proposal would allow “four times the amount of marijuana” than in other states with such laws — to be “pure rubbish.”

Original Production in CannabisNow.