At Utah’s first cannabis conference, vendors and attendees are wary of state-backed medical marijuana compromise

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Bennett shows off her new hat at "Utah Cann," the state's first conference on cannabis, on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018.

Some carried signs that said, “I’m a patient not a criminal.” Others lounged in bean bag chairs covered in bright green fabric with cartoonish marijuana leaves. A few bought books on “The 420 Gourmet” and “Marijuana Botany.”

There were rows of vendors, too, selling balms and oils and syrups made from hemp. Experts led panels on cannabis use for pain management and the myths of medical marijuana. Hundreds of people came to listen.

Utah Cann, held Friday and Saturday in Sandy, was the state’s first-ever conference on cannabis. It was big and bustling and, at times, smelled a little strange.

And it came just weeks after state lawmakers and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced their behind-the-scenes work on a medical marijuana compromise that will be considered during a special session next month. The proposal will override whatever voters decide on Proposition 2, the cannabis ballot initiative, from which it has already appeared to erode support.

The dominant sentiment for the legislative deal at this weekend’s convention: apprehension.

“I think Prop 2 is going to pass, we’re just worried about what’s going to happen after,” said Riley Brown, co-founder of Utah Cannabis Legislation, a local group that helped create the initiative.

The proposition polled barely above 50 percent with voters in the latest poll. Brown fears that if it doesn’t pass — which he doesn’t think is likely — the Legislature will just drop its efforts entirely and Utah will not have a medical marijuana law. And if it does pass, Brown is anxious that lawmakers will limit patients beyond what they’ve outlined in the first draft of their plan.

Doug Rice, vice president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah, said he’s concerned by the limitations already in the proposal and skeptical it will be effective for most patients. He takes care of his 26-year-old daughter, Ashley, who has epilepsy.

She used to have 12 to 25 seizures a day. When she started using cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonpsychoactive byproduct from cannabis plants that’s legal (and largely unregulated) in the state, she started having three to five. When Rice took her to Colorado to get an edible with THC, another byproduct of the plant that is psychoactive and banned in Utah, she had none.

“We know that it works,” Rice said. “If a seizure could kill her, I want her to have zero.”

Under the legislative proposal, qualifying patients will get doctor recommendations to secure products with both CBD and THC. But edibles will be limited to square gummy candies, Rice said, and doctor visits will be required often to keep a prescription current. The amount of cannabis per person, too, will be capped and the doses will be dispensed only at county health departments or at one of up to five “medical cannabis pharmacies.” The number of qualifying conditions approved by the Legislature also includes fewer than the proposition.

“You’re limiting people’s sources unnecessarily,” said Rice, who is a licensed paramedic in Utah. “I can’t afford to break the law. That’s why I need to change the law.”

Gary Parker, volunteer coordinator with TRUCE Utah, a group of patients and caregivers advocating for safe legal access to medical cannabis, called the deal drafted by lawmakers “clunky and full of bureaucracy.” Endelecia Lovato, whose dad takes opioids for his nerve pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, believes it will take too long for patients to get cannabis products under the proposed system and, in turn, fuel the creation of a black market. David Karst, community outreach director for the Utah Patients Coalition, said there are “quite a few constrictions, more hurdles.”

His group helped negotiate the legislative deal, which Karst said is definitely not perfect. One of the bigger concessions: The coalition gave up its push for home growth of cannabis plants — which was meant for people in remote and rural parts of the state.

That’s frustrating for Russell Baker, who owns Moonlight Garden Supply in Salt Lake City. His business specializes in indoor lights, planting pots and discreet tents, which he would have encouraged more people to buy to grow their own marijuana for medicinal use. He spent Saturday at the conference, which was hosted by Salt Lake City Weekly, to advocate for “getting plants in the hands of the people.”

His friend Anders Jahnsson sat at the company’s booth reading aloud passages on cannabis from page 266 of “What on Earth Evolved?” They both said this push isn’t for people to get high and use recreationally.

“I’m concerned how the Legislature is going to undermine this,” Baker said.

“This is not about pot shops on every corner,” added Parker from TRUCE.

Another company based in Colorado was selling plant formula while playing videos of how they’ve used the fertilizer to grow their marijuana farm. One booth had T-shirts that said, “I like big blunts and I cannot lie” next to bags of CBD gummies. A woman sold handmade necklaces with marijuana leaves. Several vendors had hemp lotions and bath bombs.

Ernest Lehenbauer, a distributor for Hemp 7 based out of Utah County, said he worries the deal will cause lawmakers to re-evaluate the CBD oil products he sells and possibly stop his distribution entirely.

“It’s almost like the hemp plant was designed for the human body,” he said. “So we’re hoping they’ll come up with a good compromise.”

Wendy Bennett of Salt Lake City bought a sparkly baseball cap with a marijuana leaf in green rhinestones to show her support for medical cannabis. She said the legislative plan is a “step in the right direction” for the state overall, but not as good as Prop 2.

Pam Harrison, who leads the activist organization Indivisible Ogden, has reservations, too, but likes that the Legislature’s definition of pain is more encompassing. Under the proposition, it was listed only as “chronic.” Under the compromise, it can be pain that is unresponsive after two weeks and two types of treatments, such as aspirin and physical therapy.

Harrison carried around clipboards, urging people to register to vote. She still hopes they’ll cast their ballot in favor of the proposition. She believes it will drive a huge voter turnout this election despite the legislative deal.

Hung up around the convention center, among the cookbooks and tie-dyed T-shirts, were dozens of green and red posters. Many read, “I support patients.” A few said, “Plants not pills.” But most urged, “Vote for Prop 2.”