Calling it a move for freedom and compassion, a state lawmaker this week unveiled a medical marijuana bill that would allow residents of conservative Utah who have chronic and debilitating diseases to use certain edible products containing THC, the chemical responsible for most of the drug's psychological effects.
"We have people who are suffering. The government policy is denying them relief based on the possibility or the reality that some people abuse," Saratoga Springs Republican Sen. Mark Madsen told reporters on Wednesday. "Just because some people would misuse a firearm, we don't tell all the law-abiding citizens they can't have one to use lawfully. So I think the same principle applies here."
The proposal does not allow the smoking of marijuana, which Madsen, the sponsor of the proposal, said is unhealthy and an ineffective way to consume marijuana. Madsen's bill was made public Wednesday and is scheduled to have its first hearing Thursday morning.
Under Madsen's bill, patients would be issued medical marijuana cards. It also sets up a system of seed-to-sale regulation for licensed growers, producers and dispensers.
It specifies what conditions are eligible, such as AIDS, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical specialists — not general practice doctors — would be able to prescribe medical marijuana. For example, Madsen said, someone with cancer would need their oncologist to recommend it.
If Utah passed the bill, it would join 23 states and District of Columbia where medical marijuana programs are already in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last year, Utah passed a limited medical marijuana program allowing those with severe epilepsy to possess cannabis extract oil. Many in the GOP-controlled Legislature said that while they supported that program and the relief it offered to children suffering from severe seizures, they didn't want to open the door to a more robust medical marijuana law.
Madsen said he hopes to overcome his colleagues' fears.
"It has very strong emotional, knee-jerk type of reaction from a lot of folks. I think we need to push past that emotion and past much of the propaganda that's been promulgated over the years to get to the real facts. I think once people look at it with an eye to compassion and freedom, we might change some opinions," he said.
He's confident his bill will pass the GOP-controlled Senate, and he's reasonably optimistic about its chances in the Republican-dominated House, Madsen said. But he didn't have a head count on votes.
"I'm not nuts about it," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Wednesday. Hughes said he worries it's a path to legalize marijuana.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters Tuesday that he's concerned doctors may hand out prescriptions for medical marijuana too freely. In other states, recreational users have been able to obtain the drug through medical marijuana programs, Herbert said.
Madsen said Wednesday that he hopes the governor will come around and support his proposal.
"This is designed to offer freedom and relief to those people who have serious conditions and have a doctor who thinks that this treatment would benefit them," he said. "I know that the anti-cannabis bigots and so forth would love to blur those lines and use that slippery-slope argument, but it's not an excuse to deny freedom and compassion to people, in my mind."
Madsen said he began researching the issue after suffering from persistent back problems. When his doctor recently recommended that he try a marijuana treatment, Madsen traveled to neighboring Colorado earlier this month to try medical marijuana through cannabis-infused gummy bears and an electronic-cigarette device.
He said he found the treatment effective, and it lessened his pain. If his doctor agrees that it would allow him to use fewer or no prescription painkillers, he'd consider taking a cannabis product again.
"Frankly, at a certain point they told me to wait and the effects would come over time," Madsen said. "But after a couple of hours, I sat there wondering to myself: Is this what all this fuss is about?"
Online: SB 259: http://1.usa.gov/1EQPz4y
Associated Press writer Kelly Catalfamo contributed to this report. Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice