SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah lawmakers are still cold to the idea of medical marijuana, waiting instead for the federal government to take the first step.
But that doesn't mean the upcoming session won't have its fair share of discussion and bills filed on the matter of Utahns medicating with weed.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has said he believes medical marijuana may be the biggest issue of the session, though his counterpart in the Senate doesn't think it will fly locally.
"I don't think we're going to get very far until it is addressed federally," said Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy.
Neiderhauser said he's not open to approving it until it is properly researched and can be dispensed by a pharmacy, as he doesn't trust private dispensaries.
"That whole dispensary system doesn't work very well," he told the Deseret News editorial board. "I think it'll just be a seedbed for all kind of other bad issues that we don't want to have happen here in Utah. These are the elements that need to be addressed before Utah is going to jump off that cliff."
Cannabis oil is already legal in Utah for a select few, mostly children using the expensive tincture to control a specific type of epileptic seizures. Some legislators are looking to perhaps expand availability of the oil to additional diagnoses, but those bills are still in draft form.
The Utah Medical Association board of directors has echoed Neiderhauser's concerns, saying marijuana has yet to be "run through a drug approval process by a recognized organization like the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for either prescription or over-the-counter" use.
"Neither the Legislature nor the public should determine what is medicine," said Dr. Paul Clayton, Utah Medical Association president and board chairman.
Physicians aren't necessarily opposed to cannabis-based medicines, Clayton said, but they need to first be proven and approved by the appropriate scientific and evidence-based channels.
"It is a medical process that produces valid medicines," he said. "But this has not been done yet for marijuana."
Marijuana's federal classification as a Schedule I controlled substance prevents it from being eligible for medical research in the United States, as scheduled drugs are highly restricted.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, plans to address the matter of medical marijuana from the stance that the plant does have some benefit, even if that doesn't involve the plant as a whole.
Daw is backing a bill, HB130, that would permit the handling and processing of marijuana and/or cannabis in Utah for researchers conducting "an institutional review board-approved study." Basically, the study must first be approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and comply with federal law.
"There's a lot of possibility out there, but we just don't know because we don't have the research," Daw said, adding that he's heard anecdotes and believable personal stories, but doctors want research to back it all up.
"We're missing the steps that doctors need," he said. "My hope is that what I'm proposing will be a step in the right direction to get broad acceptance from the medical community."
Daw also is working on another bill to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes once the research is done. Though it seems like the Utah Legislature is contemplating small steps, "it is a clear indication of what direction we're going to go," he said.
Daw said he believes medical marijuana will be legal someday in Utah.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, sponsored HB105 in 2014, or Charlie's Law, which made cannabinoid oil available to kids with epilepsy.
Froerer said the law has proven to be successful for many families, and he's hoping to expand access to more people with other health issues.
"I believe that individuals, not the state, should make decisions regarding their health options," Froerer said.
Utah has plenty of examples to learn from, he said, with 26 other states that have adopted some form of medical marijuana policy, as well as two adjacent states with full recreational access.
"It puts us in the position of offering alternatives to those that are looking for options on their personal health issues without forcing them to break the law," Froerer said, adding that many Utahns end up leaving the state for access to marijuana.
He wants Utahns to get what they may need in Utah.
Medical marijuana was a hot topic during recent sessions of the Legislature, specifically in 2016, but that was fueled by intense support from former Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, who did not seek re-election. He gathered many residents who reported benefits from the use, albeit illegal, of marijuana for various medical concerns.
Madsen has vowed to move outside of Utah to a place where access to the proposed remedy is not restricted, though that has not yet happened.
Daw said he "jumped into the fray" last year somewhat reluctantly. His bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Ceder City, who is backing another marijuana-related bill this year, was written to combat the kind of open access proposed by Madsen's bill.
Both bills failed to pass last year, even with widespread public support of the issue. Sixty-six percent of Utah voters surveyed in April for a UtahPolicy.com poll said they supported medical marijuana as long as it could be prescribed by a doctor.
And there has been talk of putting medical marijuana on the ballot in 2018, though that was brought up and quickly dismissed during the 2016 session, lacking support.
Vickers' bill this year is said to be an attempt at setting up the framework for the local production and distribution of medical marijuana in Utah, if it should become legal. It involves the input from regulatory agencies, outlining the process under which the substance would be produced locally.
Advocates for legalizing medical marijuana in Utah are not optimistic about the bills being presented this year, with Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, saying the bills lack substance and could even burden patients if adopted.
"Bills as insufficient and lacking as those heading into the 2017 legislative session show the glaring deficiency in our state Legislature's understanding of cannabis and the plight of patients in our state," the organized group of patients and caregivers said in a statement released Thursday. "TRUCE will continue its efforts to educate the community and endeavor to end the stigmatization and misinformation surrounding the cannabis plant and its incredible potential for good."
Libertarian think tank Libertas Institute says the Legislature's inability to legalize the substance shows a disconnect from constituents.
"Several proposals in the upcoming legislative session will be considered, but none goes far enough," said Connor Boyack, president and founder at Libertas. "A supposedly pro-family, limited-government state should not continue to criminalize mothers and fathers for trying to improve their health."
But it isn't just health that lawmakers are worried about.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, told members of the Deseret News editorial board last week that many jailed felons and drug addicts likely began their plights with access to marijuana.
"We need to be very careful about introducing another gateway drug," Stevenson said. "It needs to be prescribed in amounts we can measure."
Daw said he has heard many patient stories and believes there is potential for medical benefit from marijuana, but he wants to make sure the state approaches the issue in the right way, setting forth paths for research and information gathering, as well as enforcement.
"We learned a lot from this last year," he said. "My hope is that through the learning process and the sausage-making that is lawmaking, we'll make some progress."