Medical marijuana patients will see relief in Utah. Robert Gehrke explains how.

Utah’s cannabis program has been hemorrhaging patients, but a change to the law this month removes one costly hurdle.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

A small tweak to Utah’s medical marijuana program that took effect earlier this month could make a big difference for patients and a system that has been losing customers at an increasingly brisk pace.

Up until this month, cannabis patients were required to pay an upfront fee and renew their medical cannabis card every six months. Utah is the only state in the nation that had such a frequent requirement.

The fee charged by the state was only $15, so no big deal, right?

Well, the catch was that the law also required patients to see a medical provider, and those visits weren’t cheap. The initial visit averages $200 and can run as high as $350, and then the follow-ups average $128 and up to $250.

So you’re looking at an average of $328 and as much as $600 — before you even spend a nickel on medicine.

If you’re someone who buys a lot, maybe it’s a price you’re willing to pay. But if you are a patient who only uses cannabis occasionally — when pain flares up, for example — and you spend $30 or $50 a month, the annual fees basically double the price of your medication.

At that point, you might just think, “screw this,” put that money in your gas tank and drive to Wendover — which defeats the whole purpose of having a Utah medical cannabis program in the first place.

“The juice isn’t worth the squeeze,” Chris Jeffrey, co-founder and CEO of WholesomeCo., one of Utah’s medical cannabis pharmacies, explained to me. “That’s not what we want as a state.”

Not surprisingly, the churn in Utah’s medical marijuana program has been remarkably high. From last July through this April, nearly 2,550 a month people have received their medical cannabis card in Utah. During that same time, 1,830 have let their cards expire and left the program each month.

What you have, Jeffery said, is a program that is still growing, but can’t sustain that trajectory when nearly seven out of every 10 patients drop out. The turnover is especially high, as one would expect, among those who don’t buy a lot of product. “It’s kind of a factory of churning and burning,” he said.

So, last legislative session, Sen. Luz Escamilla sponsored SB137 which, among other things, moved Utah’s renewal requirement from every six months to a year. The law, which took effect May 3, lets medical providers ask patients to come in for checkups more often — that’s between the doctor and patient — but the state requirement is for annual renewal.

“I don’t think it’s up to the legislature to pick arbitrary timelines without any evidence,” she said during the session.

It should be a boost for the cannabis program, but it will also be a benefit to patients.

“We’ve been advocating and pushing for this for a number of years, so I’m happy to see it,” said Christine Stenquist, founder and president of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, a patient advocacy group. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

That’s kind of the story of Utah’s entire cannabis program. The Legislature begrudgingly accepted the public’s desire for a medical marijuana program, but created a system that is over-regulated, over-complicated and difficult for patients.

But each year since its inception there have been steps in the right direction and the state is moving toward something that hopefully is sustainable and works for the people it’s supposed to help.