In less than two months, Utah voters will decide whether or not to allow marijuana for medicinal use, an issue that has received both strong support and opposition. Current polls show 64 percent of Utahns support the ballot initiative.
As a researcher, I have taken a professional interest in the way communities feel about medical marijuana. I study what happens after medical marijuana is legalized, and the struggles that accompany successful implementation.
Suppose Prop. 2 passes at the polls. What comes next? Often, after medical marijuana is legalized by a popular vote, policymakers are left without much guidance to develop and implement regulations. Studies have shown specific areas in which community members can help ensure a smooth and safe transition for everyone.
Hopefully, community leaders are already considering what a successful integration of medical marijuana would look like. Ideally, Utah would have a sufficient number of dispensaries throughout the state, a streamlined process for patients to obtain a medical cannabis card, well-informed doctors and patients about how medical marijuana should be used and low rates of abuse by people who do not need medical marijuana.
Education makes the largest difference in how communities adapt to medical marijuana. In a study conducted just after the legalization of medical marijuana in Massachusetts, we found that communities often had a hard time accepting medical marijuana as legitimate medicine, and sometimes stonewalled the dispensary approval process as a result. Some communities feared that a medical marijuana dispensary was akin to opening a methadone clinic assisting people with addictions.
The people most disadvantaged by this misinformed thinking were patients, who rely on being able to access medical marijuana, and dispensary owners, who tend to see themselves as community-based mom and pop shops. Just as a local pharmacist might see herself serving the community rather than being an outreach of “Big Pharma,” dispensary owners do not see themselves as part of a “Big Marijuana” industry. The most successful dispensary owners were those who went above and beyond to educate community stakeholders before getting approval to open, and who exhibited extreme transparency throughout the process.
When communities reciprocate transparency with a streamlined approval process, the community benefits. Patients are able to get the medical marijuana they need, and people applying for licenses to grow, package, test and distribute marijuana are able to move forward with business operations. Many people we interviewed who had used marijuana illegally for pain relief said they much preferred to obtain it through legal channels, where they knew it had been tested in independent labs, rather than the black market. However, when the process to obtain medical marijuana was too difficult or lengthy, some patients continued to seek out cannabis through illegitimate channels.
We also found both doctors and patients need more information about how medical marijuana should be used. Often, the health community is reticent to prescribe medical marijuana, and does not see it as legitimate medicine. Doctors need education addressing the both the potential benefits and harms of medical marijuana. Patients also need education on how medical marijuana should be used, and benefit when there are shared spaces for them to discuss their experiences with each other.
Perhaps the greatest impact medical marijuana can have on Utah is a reduction in opioid-related deaths. Studies have shown that opiate overdose deaths decreased in states where marijuana was legalized for medical or recreational use. The question will be how much access those struggling with opioid addictions have to medical marijuana.
Additionally, many Utahns will face financial barriers to access. Because federal government health coverage such as Medicaid or Medicare cannot be used to obtain medical marijuana, low-income individuals and families will have to pay out of pocket for a doctor’s visit and the medical marijuana itself. Utah should determine in advance any policies or subsidies aimed at helping Utah’s most vulnerable patients access medical marijuana.
Without thoughtful and forthright implementation, legalizing medical marijuana in Utah will not have much beneficial impact. Deeply ingrained cultural attitudes surrounding the dangerousness of marijuana persist, and community leaders cannot ignore these perceptions while dealing with changes to state law.
All Utahns share the responsibility to continue to educate themselves about medical marijuana in order to provide patients the access and safety they deserve.
Miriam Boeri, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Bentley University, Waltham, Mass.