SALT LAKE CITY — Medical marijuana advocates, stymied in their recent efforts to legalize medical cannabis in Utah, are taking the fight to the nation's capital.
They are calling on Utah’s congressional delegation to support a bill that would downgrade marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule II substance — something that state legislators urged Congress to do in a resolution sponsored by state Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Salt Lake City.
That would open the way for more research on the substance, something both advocates and those concerned about the potential harmful impacts of marijuana support.
Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education), said state lawmakers should be doing more to convince Utah's delegation to open up marijuana research.
"If they are telling us that our fight isn’t with them (and) it’s with the federal government, and they are in agreement of the resolution that Brian Shiozawa did then all of those representatives and senators should be behind every single one of their constituents advocating for that to happen on the federal level," Stenquist said. "But that's not what I’m hearing or seeing."
She and state Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, who fought a failed bid to legalize medical marijuana in Utah in the last legislative session, said they hope to travel to Washington, D.C. in the summer to lobby members of Congress.
In his past meetings with Utah's congressional delegation, most members have been open-minded if cautious, Madsen said.
"I was very encouraged by (U.S. Rep. Chris) Stewart and I was very encouraged by (U.S. Rep. Rob) Bishop and I was very encouraged by (U.S. Rep. Mia Love)," Madsen said. "And I think that (U.S. Sen.) Mike Lee's principles will inevitably drive him to the right position on this."
Legalizing medical marijuana in the next legislative session remains first priority, the state senator said.
But if the federal government can officially reclassify marijuana, Madsen believes it would neutralize some of the chief complaints from opponents of medical marijuana — among them, that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and that research on its medicinal qualities is thin.
“You just have to show them that it's safe politically or whatever it is that's holding them back from doing the right thing," Madsen said. "You've got to knock out every argument so finally they have to give in."
Advocates are riding a tide of warming attitudes in Congress, where last week the House approved a measure that would let Veterans Affairs doctors recommend medical marijuana to patients in states that have legalized it — something the VA currently prohibits.
In April, the Drug Enforcement Administration told lawmakers it hopes to make a decision on reclassifying marijuana in the first half of 2016. Critics say the classification is out of step with a growing body of international scientific research, public opinion and state law.
Marijuana currently shares Schedule I status with substances like heroin and ecstasy, meaning that the government considers it to have “no medical use and a high potential for abuse."
Doctors can't prescribe it. Researchers who want to study it face significant hurdles. And patients in states like Utah, where low-THC cannabidiol is legal, have no way to get the drug without technically breaking federal law.
“There’s nobody I talk to up on the hill, whether they like the Vickers-Daw bill or the Madsen bill, who is opposed to research,” said Shiozawa, referring to the two competing medical cannabis bills that both failed in the 2016 legislative session. “They all said we have to have answers.”
Shiozawa said he has spoken personally to Chaffetz and U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch about getting involved and neither indicated strong interest. The issue, Shiozawa said, “needs to be revisited" with Utah's congressional delegation.
“We can do that as a state legislature, we can do that as the governor,” Shiozawa said. “I think there’s some real merit to this. If we had done this two years ago, we’d already have some answers.”
"I'm worried they're a little distracted with all the things going on during the election year to get something substantial passed," he said. "Unfortunately, it's kind of like anything else. If you don't pay attention to it, it won't get done."
Chaffetz has urged caution on rescheduling marijuana, raising concern about unintended consequences. He introduced a bill in Congress to legalize CBD oil in states where it's approved for patient use in March.
"Look, I had a mother who passed away from cancer and a dad who passed away from cancer, and there are reasons to address those things, but they have to be dealt with in a very scientific way," he told the Utah Senate in February.
Hatch, Lee and Love's offices did not respond to requests for comment. Bishop and Stewart were traveling, their spokespeople said.
Love and Chaffetz both voted in favor of the House bill that would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans. Bishop and Stewart opposed it.
Mike Liszewski, government affairs director at Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Safe Access, said the organization hasn't gotten "any sort of robust commitment yet from the Utah delegation," although he said support in Congress for medical marijuana is growing.
Both Republican Utah gubernatorial candidates support rescheduling medical marijuana on the federal level.
Gov. Gary Herbert told the combined Deseret News and KSL editorial board last week that gathering research is a critical first step before legalizing medical marijuana.
"People are anxious, I understand that," Herbert said. "But I think we're taking a very responsible approach in Utah."
Herbert has repeatedly advocated for a cautious, research-based approach to medical marijuana legalization.
"If there really is a medicinal benefit to cannabis, cannabis oil, (or the) marijuana plant, let’s get the science out there so we can measure it and quantify it and see if it impacts you the same way it impacts me," he told the editorial board. "That’s what we have science and research for. The big inhibitor has been the federal government, for heaven’s sake.”
His challenger, Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson, said he would have signed either of the two competing medical cannabis bills that failed in the Utah Legislature last session.
Johnson said marijuana should be reclassified but called the Shiozawa resolution "almost meaningless" unless action follows.
"I don't think Congress is doing enough on this," he said.
He added: “To me, it’s odd that the federal government’s not enforcing its marijuana laws, and yet it won’t allow drug companies and the FDA to see if marijuana can be used productively as a medicine. It’s like the worst of both worlds.”
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