Critics say the single state dispensary envisioned in Utah’s new medical marijuana law would limit access for patients

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) A panel from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food hosted its first rule-making hearing for growing state-owned marijuana under the new, strict medical marijuana law. The panel listened to public input during the event at the State Office Building in Salt Lake City Thursday April 19, 2018.

A panel started writing the rules for a new medical marijuana law by listening to suggestions from people like Mark Newman, who travels to Nevada every few months and spends up to $1,000 to buy marijuana that he uses to treat his migraines.

“I was sick and tired of taking opioids,” Newman said Thursday. “You just keep taking them and taking them and taking them. Then all the sudden you forget how many you’ve taken.”

Newman held up what he said could be a solution to his condition and to concerns over how doctors will know the dosage and ingredients their patients would get if they tried marijuana under the new law that will soon take effect.

He held up a patch that contains THC – a psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that is federally illegal. Then he made another suggestion: the state needs more than one dispensary so that eligible patients across Utah can try marijuana for their illness if they want to.

“I didn’t know that Utah was talking about one dispensary. That’s an injustice to the people,” Newman said. “Who wants to drive from Blanding to Salt Lake to get their medicine? I wouldn’t. I’d drive to Mesquite.”

Mark Newman shows the label of a marijuana patch he said he bought on one of his regular trips to Nevada to buy cannabis he uses to treat his migraines.

Mesquite, like other cities in Nevada, has a dispensary, though it would be quicker to drive to Salt Lake City from Blanding.

Still, there’s no guarantee the one state dispensary that the Utah Department of Agriculture is required to create by the recently passed HB197 will be in Salt Lake City.

And it’s not yet clear how the state will pick a grower that will contract with the department to grow marijuana for that dispensary.

Representatives from the department who make up the core rulemaking panel listened to ideas from people, some of whom already own or work for marijuana companies in other states and others who already use the plant, on what should be included in the new rules.

Lawmakers passed HB197, which narrowly legalized growing, dispensing and processing of cannabis. They also passed HB195, which will allow people who are near death to possess products from the plant, if their doctor recommends they try it.

The Legislature passed the bill after several earlier failed attempts and after a campaign formed to ask voters this November to legalize medical marijuana for a much broader number of people who could purchase cannabis products at privately owned dispensaries. The campaign is still moving forward, and several attendees on Thursday supported that over the new laws.

The initiative, said Ian McAlexander, a chemist, “is the will of the people.”

Still, voters won’t weigh in on the initiative until November, and the department must write rules and contract with a grower before Jan. 1 and establish a dispensary by July 1, 2019. And Thursday was the only scheduled public hearing before the rules are completed, though the agency plans to hold hearings once draft rules are written.

McAlexander, who founded a testing company, gave the panel two pages of things he said they should consider in its rules.

There are questions about how much a patient can possess at a time; how the product gets from the grower to the dispensary to the patient; how that courier is protected from federal agents or hijackers; how money will be exchanged because of banking roadblocks; how often a grower would be audited or checked for compliance; and fees.

“Often these fees [in other states] are very, very high,” McAlexander said. “That’s because they’d like to keep people out of this business. It’s my hope that you guys will be pragmatic and not use money to limit business in this area.”

John Cooper was among several people who said the state should consider importing marijuana to allow people who are already terminally ill to treat their conditions with cannabis quickly.

“My dad probably has about six months left,” Cooper said. “If he has to wait for plants to be put in the ground, harvested and processed, he’s probably not going to be around to benefit from this law rolling out.”