With a bit of a grin, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch declared it “high time” Wednesday to expand research into the possible benefits of medical marijuana.
And he didn’t stop there.
The 83-year-old conservative lawmaker joked that the country has “experimented” with state solutions without “delving into the weeds” to scientifically study the safety, dosing and effectiveness of the drug to treat chronic and terminal conditions.
“Now all puns aside,” he said still laughing, “it will surprise no one that I am strongly against the use of recreational marijuana. I worry, however, that in our zeal to enforce the law, we too often blind ourselves to the medicinal benefits of natural substances like cannabis.”
Hatch’s address from the Senate floor served to introduce a bill he’s sponsoring: the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017. The proposal, which he first signed onto last year, focuses on removing the “bureaucratic red tape and over-regulation” that the senator feels impedes research into the drug’s potential medical uses.
In Utah, though, activists insist that there have been enough studies. It’s time for those suffering, they say, to have access to a treatment that’s already available in Washington, D.C., and 29 other states (including Nevada, Arizona and Colorado).
“People saying that we need more research frustrates me,” said Amanda Ellis-Graham, a Salt Lake City resident who smokes marijuana to help with the pain from her multiple sclerosis. “It’s a delay tactic.”
The Utah Patients Coalition is collecting signatures for a medical-marijuana ballot initiative. In the three weeks since the group got the go-ahead from state election officials to start gathering names, 25,000 people have signed the petition, estimated DJ Schanz, the campaign’s director.
The organizers need 113,143 signatures by April, though Schanz is confident they’ll have those before the Utah Legislature convenes in January.
If the measure wins voter approval in 2018, physicians would be allowed to prescribe marijuana for certain medical conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. And patients could buy it from a limited number of cannabis outlets. While smoking marijuana and driving under the influence of the drug would still be prohibited, the initiative would permit the use of topical oils, edibles and vaping supplies as part of a medical treatment.
Ellis-Graham, 38, currently buys her supplies on the black market, which she acknowledges “has a risk.”
“I’m sick of being a felon in my own state,” she said.
The alternative of living without cannabis, Ellis-Graham added, isn’t an option. She’s suffered from vertigo, vision and hearing problems and muscle pain that required her to use a wheelchair to move around.
“If it were legal here, that would change everything. I would have options,” she said. “I would have people to talk to about which strain I should use… instead of asking ‘Could I get a half an ounce?’”
A July poll from The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 77 percent of Utah voters somewhat or strongly support legalizing medical marijuana.
Those results came shortly after Jon Huntsman Sr., a four-time cancer survivor and Utah philanthropist, said he’d “love to” try cannabis during a televised interview. Huntsman has polymyalgia rheumatica, which causes pain and stiffness in the shoulders and hips. Opioids, he said, “haven’t done the job.”
“If medical marijuana was known by another name,” he later said in a statement, “it would have been utilized as a pain medication many years ago.”
The state Legislature passed — and Gov. Gary Herbert signed — a measure during the 2017 session that permits the study of cannabinoid products for medical use. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, says because of federal law, Utah researchers can currently only import farm hemp to examine.
Next year he wants to “push the envelope” and include provisions for the plant to be grown in the state.
As an emergency room doctor, Republican state Sen. Brian Shiozawa has seen patients who have eaten marijuana edibles in Colorado and returned to Utah vomiting, feeling nauseous and experiencing psychosis. More study of the drug, he said, could improve dosing and concentrations.
“We’re flying blind right now,” Shiozawa said. “We don’t know what the side effects could be exactly.”
He has sponsored similar bills to Daw’s and suggested changing marijuana from a “Schedule I” classification, meaning the federal Drug Enforcement Administration views it as having no accepted medical use, to a “Schedule II,” which would allow for medical research.
Hatch’s bipartisan bill — with support from two Democratic and two Republican senators — looks to lift that scheduling determination and make marijuana more available to study. The evidence, he said, “shows that cannabis possesses medicinal properties that can truly change people’s lives for the better.”
The senator has previously supported tougher criminal penalties for pot farming on public lands and continues to believe marijuana can be a harmful substance.
Dave Cromar, though, praises the good it’s done for his 10-year-old son.
Before using cannabis, Holden Cromar had 40 to 100 seizures a day due to his epilepsy. Now, he has anywhere from zero to 10. He even celebrated a record 84-hour period in August when he had none.
The family moved from Utah to Colorado in 2013 so Holden could try medical marijuana. They’ve since moved back to St. George and order his products online knowing what works. Still, there are some strains they can’t be shipped to the state.
“This is medicine. This isn’t anything that people should fear. It should be embraced and allowed,” Dave Cromar said. “No matter how many studies are going on, patients still need access now.”
Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.