Diagnosed: Should Utah Join Other States In Legalizing Medical Marijuana?

Oct 3, 2018

In November Utahns will vote on whether or not to legalize medical cannabis through a ballot initiative known as Proposition 2. 

While there is disagreement about if and how the state should join other states by allowing medical marijuana, both Utah lawmakers and advocacy groups agree the drug’s status at the federal level is limiting research and could be complicating perceptions about recreational versus medical use of the plant.

One reason for the uncertainty may be that the science behind medical cannabis is still inconclusive. Cannabis is a schedule one drug. This means the federal government classifies it as an illegal drug with no known medicinal properties. This status makes the process for doing medical research on cannabis a little hazy.

“Many people who are opposed—especially here in Utah who are opposed to medical cannabis legalization—say well, we don’t have the medical research to back that up,” said Jim Hutchins, a neuroscientist who studies the brain at Weber State University.

“It’s my position personally that it would be easier for us to change the laws, which is what Proposition 2 is about, and then that makes it possible to do the research, then it is to do the research, which hasn’t been done in the last 50 years because it’s almost impossible to research on a schedule one drug,” he said.

Hutchins is part of TRUCE, Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, an advocacy group supporting medical cannabis in Utah.

Conducting peer-reviewed research on cannabis is difficult in the United States because, said Hutchins, right now the University of Mississippi has the only federally approved license to produce cannabis for clinical purposes.

“With just one source of cannabis we haven’t been able, as scientists, to manipulate the amounts of these different compounds,” Hutchins said. “And see what affects that has on the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis versus the pain relief properties of cannabis versus the psychoactive properties of cannabis.”

Utah Republican State Senator Evan Vickers lives in Cedar City and is a pharmacist. He supports research of medical cannabis, and has co-sponsored medical cannabis bills in the Legislature that would allow terminal patients to try medical cannabis, known as the right to try, and would also allow the Department of Agriculture and Food to cultivate medical cannabis plants. Both bills passed during the 2018 legislative session.

But, he opposes Proposition 2.

“I favor using medical cannabis,” Vickers said. “And if it’s a medicine, hey, let’s make a medicine out of it. So, it needs to be in some kind of a dosage form that a physician would be comfortable in prescribing and I can track how much the patient’s getting, what kind of dose they’re getting, and then track the outcome of that.”

Vickers and other conservative lawmakers, including northern Utah Republican Senator Lyle Hillyard, have joined Utah Governor Gary Herbert in criticizing the initiative to legalize medical marijuana. And, the state’s predominate church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is encouraging members to vote against Proposition 2. They worry outside interest groups have influenced language in the initiative.

“Their desire is to have recreational marijuana across the country,” Vickers said. “In my mind, as I read the initiative, I think that it’s written appropriately to have it as close to recreational and still call it medical.”

Vickers, Herbert and the Church say the initiative is vague and allows for too much recreational use of what they consider to be a gateway drug.

Hutchins disagrees.

“There’s no evidence that the use of one compound leads to [the use] of another,” he said. “In fact, the evidence is otherwise, that people tend to use specific drugs that are convenient for them and comfortable for them to use.”

Multiple studies--including one from the Journal on Drug Issues about the effect of criminalizing marijuana--suggest cannabis, as a chemical compound, is not a gateway drug. Instead, the studies indicate there are other factors that could lead to broader drug use. The claim is that, if a cannabis user buys the drug illegally and they feel comfortable using illegal drugs, that could lead them to feeling more comfortable about purchasing and using other illegal drugs.

While Hutchins supports the initiative, which is broader and allows for public consent, Vickers supports more restrictive access to cannabis through a legislative process. They both agree, however, medical cannabis could be a good thing for patients in Utah, and that more research is needed. They also agree that legalizing cannabis state by state for medical purposes is one way to put pressure on the federal government to change the drug’s status, ultimately making the plant easier to access for medical research.

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Budge Clinic, a multi-specialty clinic offering care for every member of your family in one location. Details found here.