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Marijuana Coming to Utah?

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In about two months Utahans will be facing a choice on the ballot relating to legalizing medical marijuana.  Rhetoric has been easy to come by so here is a quick overview of what the ballot initiative is and isn’t to help in your decision about whether to support or oppose the initiative.

Proposition 2 proposes to make marijuana legal in Utah for a limited number of medical conditions.  It sets up the structure to control the growing, processing, and distribution of marijuana. Individuals are required to have a prescription (medical marijuana card) issued by a physician.  Patients can purchase no more than 2 ounces of marijuana in any given two week period.  Physicians may prescribe marijuana to no more than 20% of their patients. No advertising of marijuana is allowed. 

Patients may only access medical marijuana with a valid prescription from a physician.  Physicians may only issue prescriptions for the following medical conditions:

  • HIV, acquired immune deficiency syndrome or an autoimmune disorder;
  • Alzheimer’s disease;
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis;
  • cancer, cachexia, or a condition manifest by physical wasting, nausea, or malnutrition
  • associated with chronic disease;
  • Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or a similar gastrointestinal disorder;
  • epilepsy or a similar condition that causes debilitating seizures;
  • multiple sclerosis or a similar condition that causes persistent and debilitating muscle spasms;
  • post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • autism;
  • a rare condition or disease that affects less than 200,000 persons in the United States, as defined in Section 526 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; and

chronic or debilitating pain in an individual, if a physician determines that the individual is at risk of becoming chemically dependent on, or overdosing on, opiate-based pain medication; or a physician determines that the individual is allergic to opiates or is otherwise medically unable to use opiates.

Patients may also apply for access to marijuana for other medical conditions.  The request will be reviewed by a five member Compassionate Use Board that is made up of five physicians knowledgeable about the medical use of cannabis, and the Director of the Department of Health as a non-voting member.  The board may approve use under the following conditions:

  • the individual offers, in the board’s discretion, satisfactory evidence that the individual suffers from a condition that substantially impairs the individual’s quality of life and is intractable; and
  • the board determines it is in the best interest of the patient to allow the compassionate use of medical cannabis;

Control is established by separating Cultivation, Production, Testing, Dispensaries, and requires that individuals have a valid prescription (medical card) to have access.

Cultivation

There can be no more than 15 cultivation facilities in the state.  Cannabis growing in a facility may not be visible from the outside of the perimeter of the facility and each plant must be tracked and numbered.  After harvest containers must be tamper proof, and individually tracked.

Production

Production facilities must be located more than 600 feet from any community location (school, public park or playground, church, or library) and more than 300 feet from any residential area.  The production facility packaging has a variety of requirements, including that it must show the amount of cannabis in each product and must be tamper evident. 

Testing

A representative sample of each product must be tested to validate the amount of cannabis in the product as well as meet a variety of safety requirements.

Distribution

Only licensed dispensaries may provide access to cannabis for individuals with a valid prescription (medical card).  The maximum number of dispensaries is limited to one per county or one per 150,000 residents of the county, whichever is greater.  Physicians may not own, run, or act as a dispensary agent.  Dispensary agents (employees working in the dispensary) are required to pass criminal background checks.  There are also a variety of control mechanisms that ensure products are tracked and only provided to individuals with a medical card. 

Medical marijuana is currently legal in 31 states.  Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana.  There has been only very limited testing of the value of medical marijuana to treat medical conditions.  Since marijuana is classified as a schedule I drug under Federal Law the process of gaining permission from the DEA is a complicated one and has limited the ability for organizations to conduct medical studies to reliably determine the medical benefits and appropriate dosages.

Some studies have indicated that there are no long term negative medical effects from the use of marijuana.  A recent publication from the Harvard Medical School states, “For example, a small study from Harvard’s Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientic Discovery (MIND) program looked at a group of people who used the drug to treat and manage anxiety, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sleep problems, and found that after three months of use, they did not show signs of declining cognitive function. In fact, their executive function skills — like paying attention and managing time — actually improved.”

It goes on to say, “Some initial findings have suggested that marijuana may help with certain age-related ailments, such as chronic pain, nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, and glaucoma. Yet, so far, most of the available data are from animal experiments or observational studies that rely on people’s willingness to report their marijuana use. ‘And since most users are recreational, it’s tough to accurately measure dosage and frequency,’ says Dr. Mukamal. It’s no surprise, then, that the science is so cloudy. For instance, an analysis published in 2015 in The Journal of the American Medical Association examining almost 80 trials involving nearly 6,500 people found that most of these studies suggested that marijuana use was associated with relief of some symptoms, but the findings were inconsistent.”

Our close neighbor in Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012.  For states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, arrests and incarceration are down significantly.  Auto insurance companies have reported a slight increase in auto insurance claims in these states as well.

One of the concerns raised is that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in Utah will increase the use of marijuana among youth. Neither Colorado nor Oregon has seen an increase in the percent of use using marijuana after legalization.  See the infographic from Colorado for full information, but Colorado youth rates of use of marijuana is below the national average and has remained flat after legalization of marijuana. Reports from Oregon have similar findings with no increase in overall use among youth after legalization, however they did report that among youth who were already using marijuana increases in the frequency of use were noted.

There are also concerns that this may lead to the full legalization of recreational marijuana.  There are 31 states with medical marijuana, but only eight states with recreational marijuana.  Proposition 2 in Utah does not allow for a path to recreational use, so additional legislation or another ballot initiative would be necessary to make marijuana legal for recreational purposes.

The latest polling by Dan Jones show support for the initiative at 64% in favor, 33% opposed and 2% undecided. 

If you would like to read the entire initiative it is 30 pages and can be found at https://morgannews.com/stuff/uploads/2018/09/Proposition-2-Full-Text.pdf

Marijuana infographic – PF_Youth_MJ-Infographic-Digital

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