A panel of Utah lawmakers has given initial approval to a medical marijuana proposal that would allow residents of the conservative state who have chronic and debilitating diseases to use certain edible products containing THC, the chemical responsible for most of the drug's psychological effects.
After a nearly two-hour debate, a Senate committee voted 3-2 Thursday to approve the bill and send it to the full Senate for a vote.
The two Republican lawmakers voting against it said they wanted more time to review the issue. They sought to hold off this year so lawmakers could dive into the topic this summer.
One of the two, Woods Cross Republican Sen. Todd Weiler said he recently traveled to Nevada, where a medical marijuana law has passed. In Las Vegas, Weiler said he saw a billboard with a giant pot leaf on it.
"It said, 'Call Dr. Weed' and a phone number. Is that what we're bringing to Utah?"
Saratoga Springs Republican Sen. Mark Madsen, who sponsored the bill, said if the state can push past years of propaganda and misunderstanding surrounding the drug, it would bring compassion and freedom to those who are suffering.
"This bill introduces a very small element of highly regulated freedom to willing patients and willing doctors," Madsen said.
He said medical pot has become a states' right issue to push back against federal overreach.
Thursday's hearing included testimony from law enforcement and several people suffering from cancer and other diseases.
Christine Stenquist, who lives in Kaysville, told lawmakers she has been living with a brain tumor and fibromyalgia for 20 years. Three years ago, she began using marijuana and said she is no longer housebound, no longer needs a cane, and can be a mother to her children and volunteer.
"At 42 years old, I finally have a life — the life I had to give up on," Stenquist said.
Matt Fairbanks, a Utah-based special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, spoke against the bill, telling lawmakers he has seen large crops of illegal pot grown on Utah mountainsides, leaving the environment destroyed from pesticides and erosions.
"The deforestation has left marijuana growths with even rabbits that have cultivated a taste for the marijuana," Fairbanks said.
Madsen said his proposal would only allow for indoor growing operations, with seed-to-sale tracking, testing and regulation. It does not allow the smoking of marijuana, which Madsen said is unhealthy and an ineffective way to consume the drug.
Under his bill, patients would be issued medical marijuana cards that would serve as their prescription and as a debit card to process their payments for the drug.
The proposal specifies which conditions are eligible, such as AIDS, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Medical specialists — not general practice doctors — would be able to prescribe marijuana. For example, someone with cancer would need their oncologist to recommend it.
Madsen has said he began researching the issue after having back pain for years. When his doctor recently recommended a marijuana treatment, Madsen traveled to Colorado to try it through cannabis-infused gummy bears and an electronic-cigarette device.
He said he found the treatment effective. If his doctor agrees it would let him use fewer or no prescription painkillers, he'd consider taking a cannabis product again.
Madsen said he is confident his bill will pass the GOP-controlled state Senate, and he's reasonably optimistic about its chances in the Republican-dominated House.
The House speaker and Utah's Republican governor have said they fear a medical marijuana law would lead to legalized recreational pot or broad use through suspect prescriptions.
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