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Diagnosed: Medical Cannabis Campaign Targets Individuals With Disabilities

In November Utah voters will decided whether or not to pass the Utah Medical Cannabis Act

During a recent installment of the UPR original series Diagnosed, we discussed the Utah Medical Cannabis Act.  As the series continues we learn about a social media campaign being used to help educate the public about the benefits of medical cannabis for treating individuals with disabilities. 

Marla Neff is program coordinator with Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities Up to 3 early intervention program.  She coordinates sessions between families and experts for children working to develop social skills, who need physical therapy or require assistance coordinating medical screenings.

On this morning Neff is observing and directing two young clients who are working on large motor skill development. As they toss a ball and peddle trikes, she watches them use toys as tools to help with balance and hand-eye coordination.

Director of the USU Center for Persons With Disabiities, or CPD, Matthew Wappett says while most of the children they serve make notable progression, those with epilepsy can sometimes leave the center having learned a skill during that visit but return having not only lost that skill but others. Wappett says often times this regression or lapse in learning can happen following a seizure when it is believed the brain undergoes trauma or injury.

Before moving to Utah to take the position at the CPD in January, Wappett was an associate director of the Center on Disabilities and Human Development at the University of Idaho in Northwest, Idaho near the Washington State line.

While in Idaho he watched as parents of children with epilepsy traveled to states where medical cannabis is legal. His observation was that the medical cannabis products they purchased had a beneficial impact on children and adults with many types of disabilities.

"Many adults make that choice to become a criminal because their only other option, that they see it, is they just can't go on living with their conditions," Wappett said.

"I think as a parent, it is even harder to have a children who, when they have access to medical cannabis or CBD Oil or whatever the particular product is that works and your child responds to you and is able to talk, is able to walk and be part of your family life, or not have that child be in bed going through seizure after seizure after seizure, that's not a choice at all," he said.

Wappett said parents will do what is best for their child, even to the extent of breaking the law. To keep parents from facing criminal charges and to increase the number of treatment options at his Utah center, Wappett would like to see medical cannabis be legalized in this state.

"We feel that it is a disability issue and that people deserve to have this option," said the CPD's Storee Powell.

Powell is managing a social media and public information campaign for the center. She is posting articles and medical journal reports supporting the benefits of cannabis products used for treatments.

"Also, legalizing it is going to make research much easier,” said Powell. “In the long run, it would help give patients more options. We've seen they have had success in other places, so I think there is enough evidence that we can confidently go forward."

Before beginning the campaign Dr. Wappett worked with USU administrators for approval before posting articles online, holding political panel discussions and discussing with clients their concerns. He acknowledges this is a tricky move given the fact that the center receives public funding on the state and federal levels.


"Yeah, it's odd," he said. "Does it come with risks? Absolutely. But again, we like to think we are doing the right thing for our clients."

The decision to campaign in support of medical cannabis happened just weeks before the mid-term elections in November.  When voting, Utahan’s will decide on a ballot initiative, The Utah Medical Cannabis Act, or Proposition 2. The center cannot come out directly and tell the public how to vote, but they can encourage residents to register to vote and also remind them to vote.

Gayle Ruzikah is president of the Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative family advocacy group. She and her organization are not questioning the CPD campaign, but they do question the passage of the initiative. She says the group does not believe there are enough safeguards in the proposition to give parents the help they need when using cannabis based products to treat children.

"To just say, here parents, here is your card, your child has autism go in the store and buy any products you want," Ruzikah said. "How will the parent even know (what to buy) when they get in that store?"

Ruzikah wants the state to develop distribution, labeling and monitoring programs to help direct medical use. She says the initiative doesn't go far enough in limiting the use and availability of a product she worries will be misused.

"Children having seizers is a terrible thing," she said. "Anything that can be done to help them should help them. But we've got to make sure we don't damage them while we are helping them."  

As an employee at the CPD, Powell says her understanding of the benefits of cannabis for treating ailments has increased. If the Utah Medical Cannabis Act passes, she plans to use the plant's products to treat her Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome that leaves her feeling fatigued, moody and in pain. She spent six months in bed trying to cope with the physical and emotional pains of the disorder.

"You're not functional," Powell said. "And this is something healthy people take for granted."

Doing the daily basic tasks of caring for herself, preparing meals for her family, or shopping for groceries is difficult for Powell.

"It changes your mindset and the way you approach things," she said. "The fact that something is legal or illegal doesn't cross your mind because your goal at the end of the day is to be functional.”

Legalizing cannabis for medical treatments gives patients the freedom to talk with a physician about the benefits and disadvantages of using different products. Powell wonders why that fact would not be viewed as a proper step to managing a substance that can be abused.

"People are going to do it anyway," Powell said.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert says he will vote against the initiative. He has also rejected calls by some lawmakers to hold a special session before elections to pass a plan that would allow for cannabis to be used as a medical option.

“We’ve got to call upon our Congressional delegation to take it off the schedule 1 list,” Herbert said. “Let’s do the studies, let’s do the clinical trials. Let’s develop the medicine and know what the amount of dosage is, what form it should be dispensed, what we can do so we don’t self-medicate so we can actually get the benefits of the medicinal use of marijuana.”

Leaders from the state’s predominant religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have asked members to vote against Proposition 2, but have also encouraged Utah lawmakers to consider ways to make medical cannabis available.

Seeming support for the use of medical cannabis to treat ailments is increasing. There is also a sense of agreement among both sides of the initiative that dosages and monitoring matters still need to be decided. What is not agreed upon is how to make that happen. Between now and the November 6 mid-term general election, the USU CPD will continue their education and information campaign. They are not alone. Lawmakers throughout Utah are holding town hall conversations on the topic, and a medical cannabis conference is happening later this month in Salt Lake City.

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.


Music for this segment provided through Free Music Archive and Blue Dot Sessions

At 14-years-old, Kerry began working as a reporter for KVEL “The Hot One” in Vernal, Utah. Her radio news interests led her to Logan where she became news director for KBLQ while attending Utah State University. She graduated USU with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and spent the next few years working for Utah Public Radio. Leaving UPR in 1993 she spent the next 14 years as the full time mother of four boys before returning in 2007. Kerry and her husband Boyd reside in Nibley.