SALT LAKE CITY — Proponents of medical marijuana say it would be tightly controlled in Utah if it becomes legal.
"There won't be dispensaries on every corner," said Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, a group that advocates individual freedom. "You're not going to have people saying, 'Cough, cough, I'm sick. I need some cannabis.'"
But the Utah Medical Association opposes legalization until scientific evidence is collected through well-controlled studies to validate safe and effective medical uses.
"It would be unwise to begin using medical cannabis without real clinical and empirical evidence for beneficial use of a potentially harmful drug," according to association president Dr. B. Dee Allred, noting the position generally reflects that of the American Medical Association.
Allred in a statement said the only exception would be for clinical trials conducted by Food and Drug Administration investigators registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration to evaluate medical uses that are now only anecdotal or theoretical.
Opponents and advocates of legalized medical marijuana will stake out their positions over the next few months as Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, drafts a bill for the 2016 Legislature.
Libertas will hold several public forums starting Tuesday to foster a statewide discussion about cannabis as a treatment option for sick and suffering Utahns. Boyack said there were legitimate concerns and unanswered questions about Madsen's proposal that failed by a single vote in the state Senate earlier this year.
The meetings are intended to deliberately and thoughtfully explore the issue from many different angles, Boyack said. Tuesday's meeting in the Wildcat Theater at Weber State University will focus on law enforcement and criminal justice.
One of the panelists, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, said he will talk about the issue in terms of newly passed state criminal justice reform that focuses on treatment for drug offenders.
Addictions to prescription opiates and amphetamines too often lead to heroin use and associated crime.
"If the science is there to support the medical use of marijuana, it makes logical sense to go ahead and do that," Gill said. "You're talking about a substance which may have medical applications but doesn't have the addictive qualities."
Oversight of legal medicinal marijuana production and use could fall to a number of state agencies including the Utah departments of public safety, commerce and health as well as the state tax commission.
Madsen also is open to the idea of creating a new regulatory body staffed with people versed in the industry. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia permit medical marijuana use.
The senator's previous bill identified a list of qualifying illnesses where cannabis might provide relief, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma, Chron's disease, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. Only doctors specializing in those areas could prescribe it for their patients.
"We just want get the government out of the way just a little bit so that doctors and patients together can make those decisions for their own health," Boyack said.
Though specifics of the proposal are in flux, it would limit dispensaries to one per county or one for every 200,000 residents in a county, Boyack said.
Gill suggested aversion to medical marijuana might have more to do with cultural biases than medical research issues.
A Y2 Analytics poll conducted for Libertas Institute and the Drug Policy Project of Utah in February showed 72 percent of likely Utah voters believe certain doctors should be able to recommend medical cannabis to their patients with serious conditions.
"We've had conservatives and liberals and progressives and everybody in between all supportive," Boyack said.
Last week, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said he's open to the idea of medical marijuana.
During legislative debate over Madsen's bill, the governor said he wanted to avoid the "slippery slope" of legalizing medical marijuana because of concerns that it could "morph" into recreational use.
Boyack said those who want to break the law to use marijuana are doing it already.
"Within five minutes of where you are right now you could find some illegal marijuana. It's in schools. It's on the street," he said. "This is about law-abiding citizens who are suffering because it's illegal so they're not using it."
Medical marijuana forum
Where: Wildcat Theater, Shepherd Union Building, Weber State University, Ogden
When: Tuesday 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Who: Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs; Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill; 22-year undercover Utah narcotics agent Allen Larsen; Christine Stenquist, director of Drug Policy Project of Utah; and Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Spanish Fork, president of a high-risk payment processing company.
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