SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch unveiled a bipartisan bill this week that would allow researchers to study the medical benefits, if any, of marijuana.
Hatch introduced the legislation along with Sen. Chris Coons, a Republican from Delaware, and two Democratic senators — Sen. Brian Schatz from Hawaii and Sen. Thom Tillis from North Carolina.
In a statement, Hatch said policymakers need more scientific evidence to make informed decisions on medical cannabis.
"In my home state of Utah, for instance, debates earlier this year on whether to expand access to marijuana for medical purposes highlighted the need for improved scientific research," Hatch said.
Marijuana and its dozens of active components have shown promise for treating a range of illnesses.
However, as a schedule I substance, marijuana is considered to have "no medical use and a high potential for abuse." It shares the designation with drugs like heroin and ecstasy and is illegal to study without going through significant bureaucratic hurdles.
University of Utah pediatrics chairman Dr. Ed Clark said he had not seen the bill but supports efforts to open up medical cannabis research.
The department of pediatrics has been studying a cannabidiol product called Epidiolex and its effects on children with epilepsy.
Cannabidiol is derived from marijuna but does not contain THC, the compound that causes the marijuana high.
A 2013 Utah law nicknamed "Charlee's Law" allowed people with intractable epilepsy to use hemp oil, but marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Clark said the approval process to study marijuana is lengthy, resource-intensive and a "major impediment" to necessary research.
It took the department 18 months from the start of the approval process to officially open the clinical trial, according to Clark. Much of that time was spent coordinating between the Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"We built facilities, we built security processes, that were over and above what we have in place for other very potentially addicting drugs which are schedule II," Clark said.
Clark said marijuana should be controlled — but in a manner is consistent with its risks and based on scientific evidence.
"Knowledge is of utmost importance," Clark said. "And research is the way we gain knowledge."
The debate over medical cannabis consumed the state Legislature for much of the 2015 session. Two competing bills that sought to legalize it — one restrictive and one more broad — both failed.
State lawmakers did pass a resolution sponsored by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Salt Lake, that called on Congress to reschedule marijuana from schedule I to schedule II.
Medical cannabis advocates with TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education) are also calling upon Congress to reclassify the substance.
In an interview in May, TRUCE executive director Christine Stenquist said she would like state lawmakers to be more vocal with Utah's congressional delegation about the issue.
"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."
Hatch's bill would stop short of asking the DEA to downgrade marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule II substance.
In a statement, J.P. Freire, Hatch's communications director, said the bill is meant to facilitate research so that lawmakers can be more informed about whether marijuana should be rescheduled.
"As Senator Hatch said in the this statement, the debates in Utah highlighted the need for improved scientific research, which this bill will enable," Freire said.
Instead, the bill seeks to streamline the DEA approval process and eliminate stringent stipulations such as one that requires marijuana be bolted in safes.
The bill would also direct the DEA to allow more marijuana growers. To date, the DEA has issued just one license for the cultivation of marijuana for research. That license is held by the University of Mississippi.
House lawmakers introduced a matching bill this week.
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