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Coming soon to Utah liquor stores: cannabis oils?

Published July 28, 2014 7:30 am

Health • Change would help parents of children with epilepsy avoid trips to Colorado.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A state senator who co-sponsored the bill legalizing the possession of cannabis extracts to treat children with epilepsy is considering ways to make it easier for Utah parents to get the oils, including potentially making them available at state liquor stores.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, says the problem parents face now is that it is still technically illegal under federal law for them to possess or transport the oils, which are extracts from marijuana plants high in a chemical called cannabidiol (CBD) but with almost all of the psychotropic ingredient THC removed.

Many Utah parents plan to drive to — or import the oils from — neighboring Colorado.

The federal government has stated it doesn't plan to crack down on those complying with state law. But, Urquhart says, rather than expose these parents to possible action by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, he would consider having the state import the oils and make them available at liquor stores across Utah.

"We're trying to look for ways to help these parents out. We realize this is a really rough situation they're in and a really rough situation for their kids. … Have we been helpful enough or should we go further?" Urquhart says. "Obviously, if they can get it, but get it in the state with the state's blessing, then that's probably easier than having them have to travel."

Selling the oils at liquor stores would give the state control and oversight over the products. Distributing them through pharmacies, he says, could pose a problem since the transport is illegal and pharmacists could have bank accounts seized and lose their licenses if the DEA decided to clamp down.

"Right now, DEA seems pretty hands off on CBD oil, but nothing guarantees they're going to remain that way," Urquhart says. "So this is one of those states' rights bills, where we have parents who are suffering, we have children who are suffering, we think the federal laws are blind to their plight, so as a state we're going to authorize certain things."

Urquhart's efforts on their behalf continue to win praise from parents of these Utah children.

"He's doing some amazing work. He's just looking at all the different angles," says Jennifer May, co-founder of Hope 4 Children with Epilepsy, a group that advocated for "Charlee's Law," named for a 6-year-old girl who died days after the Legislature passed the bill.

Urquhart sponsored the measure, which made it legal to possess the CBD oils, extracted from hemp plants, to treat severe seizures in children suffering from epilepsy.

The law includes tight restrictions and licensing by the Utah Department of Health to possess the oils. To be approved, parents have to pay $400 and provide certification from a neurologist that the child has intractable epilepsy and that the oils could help, along with a brief medical history.

So far, the department has issued six hemp oil-registration cards, according to spokesman Tom Hudachko.

Getting the specially tailored oils, however, has proven to be more difficult.

One of the leading producers, Realm of Caring, based in Colorado Springs, received a growers' license under Colorado's recently passed hemp law, but the plants — banded with bar codes and names of children for whom the products are destined — are still growing and the oils won't be ready for weeks if not months.

Some parents are getting their cards and waiting for that oil to be available, May says. Others are looking elsewhere.

Realm of Caring plans to begin shipping the oils to patients' homes in late October, May says, although technically "they still are breaking federal law by doing that."

"If something happens where they're not able to ship it," she says, "then we'll have car pools to Colorado."

The nonprofit Realm of Caring is working on importing products made from hemp grown outside the United States — which would be legal — but that won't be available until next spring.

Primary Children's Medical Center is also about to launch a study to measure the effects and benefits of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis, manufactured by British drugmaker GW Pharmaceuticals. Twenty-five children will be accepted into the study. May's group provided the researchers with 45 names of kids, and others who applied directly to the hospital will be considered as well.

Ultimately, May suggests, the entire process — from growing the plants to extracting and providing the oils — could be done in Utah.

"Ideally, we'd like to keep it all in Utah," May says. "We'd like it if Utah State University would grow all the plants and process the material here under [its research license]."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill into law this month that licenses private facilities to grow marijuana plants in the state and extract the oils.

"That seems like a pretty responsible way to do it," Urquhart says, "because then you can control the growth and control the processing and control the distribution."

But Urquhart says he really hopes the families who want the oils will be able to get them legally and that he won't have to sponsor any legislation to help them.

gehrke@sltrib.com Twitter: @RobertGehrke