Utah lawmaker wants state to fund university study on ‘adverse health effects’ of medical cannabis

(Jeff Chiu | AP file photo) In this June 21, 2018, file photo, a laboratory manager holds a cannabis sample in Oakland, Calif. Utah lawmakers are being asked to fund university studies into the "adverse effects" of medical cannabis, but a budget committee on Friday did not list it among its priorities.

Utah officials are gearing up to hire staff, spend money and craft regulations to build up the state’s new medical-cannabis program. At the same time, they’ve also been asked to consider funding a study on the ills of the federally outlawed weed.

This legislative session, Utah Rep. Brad Daw is pushing his colleagues for an appropriation of roughly $300,000 for a pair of studies on marijuana use — one on the “adverse human health effects from acute and/or chronic exposure to marijuana” and the other on cannabis use by pregnant women.

The appropriation requests came before the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Friday and got a mixed reception, puzzling some lawmakers while earning support from others. Ultimately the committee advised against funding the studies and gave other spending items a higher priority.

“I like the idea of sending the message that we’re going to take medical cannabis seriously in this state, and in order to do that, it would be helpful to know the effects,” said Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, who supported funding for the study.

Others on the subcommittee were concerned that the study’s seemed geared toward reaching specific conclusions.

“It’s just an interesting title for a request for an appropriation ... study adverse effects of cannabis,” Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said. “It’s my understanding that when you’re studying something, you’re starting from an objective perspective. ... Is this really only to look for negative effects?”

Dr. Edward Clark from University of Utah Health, which would be directing the research, said the proposed project title was “misleading” and that the purpose would be determining prevalence of marijuana use.

As the state embarks on its medical cannabis program, officials and providers could benefit from more data on the health effects, Clark said.

Daw, R-Orem, said he doesn’t deny the potential positives of medical cannabis and isn’t seeking to undermine the state’s program with the proposed assessments.

“My thinking was that we’ve seen a lot of the positive studies already. Generally speaking, when you have something new, you have the positive effects come out pretty quickly. The negative effects tend to be a lot harder to glean,” Daw, who wasn’t present at the committee hearing, told The Tribune in an interview later.

Connor Boyack, an advocate who helped craft the state’s new cannabis law, said there are better uses of taxpayer dollars than paying for the research.

"Taxpayers should not be required to fund unbalanced research that is specifically designed to focus only on adverse effects of cannabis and not its many benefits," he said.

While lawmakers didn't seem inclined to support the projects Friday, Daw said he'll still try to get money for them included in this year's budget.

One roughly $20,000 request would pay for the U to prepare a report aggregating existing literature on “adverse and toxic human health effects” from “acute and chronic” cannabis exposure. As part of the project, the Utah Poison Control Center would update the Legislature twice a year on reported adverse health effects from cannabis.

A larger study, costing an estimated $250,000 for the initial year, would look at the prevalence of substance use by pregnant women.

“The passage of the medical cannabis law in Utah may alter the patterns of drug use by women in the child bearing years. Thus, the University of Utah Health in collaboration with Intermountain Healthcare propose an annual and ongoing system to assess the prevalence of maternal substance use in Utah,” the funding request stated.

The study would rely on drug tests of umbilical cord segments collected as part of standard infant care at hospitals across the state. Demographic information about the mother and baby would be gathered as part of the assessment, but it would be non-identifiable, according to the documentation.

Health workers and officials could then use this data to design educational programs to deter adverse effects, Clark said.