SALT LAKE CITY — The ballot initiative campaign seeking to legalize the medical use of cannabis in Utah is expected to have enough signatures by early next month, and state legislators are pursuing their own bills affecting the commercial, research and patient access to the drug.
The Utah Patients Coalition campaign is expected to reach the required 113,000 threshold for the number of ballot signatures by early February, campaign director DJ Schanz said.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, and Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, are pursuing an assortment of bills related to the plant, but neither they nor the Utah Patients Coalition seem to have much interest in seeking out comprehensive legalization that would nullify the need for an initiative vote in November.
"Our main priority is to move forward with the ballot initiative," Schanz said, adding that the campaign's intent "is not to cry wolf and then come in with the idea to negotiate with the Legislature."
Instead, the focus would be on negotiations following the initiative passing, if that were to happen.
"There's going to be some bureaucratic reforms and tightening up some loose ends, and we'd be happy to do that with the Legislature in 2019 after this passes," Schanz said.
Vickers agreed that would be likely the timing of any extensive deliberations with those who ran the campaign.
"If they pass (the initiative), the Legislature is actually going to have to sit down and work with the advocates and those who got it passed to work out some of the issues," he said.
Vickers said he will pursue a bill this legislative session that would require the state Department of Agriculture to regulate the sale of CBD oil and also obtain a waiver from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration allowing physicians to be able to prescribe CBD oil products of various forms to their patients.
The sale of such oil is technically prohibited under United States law, Vickers said, but he has received encouraging signs from federal authorities that "there's a real possibility" the waiver could be granted.
Although it is illegal in theory, CBD oil is sold throughout Utah, Vickers said. He wants to require that it be regulated at the state level so authorities could have the ability to discipline and stop any seller currently violating the law by selling CBD oil that is high in THC content, or is even "found to be laced with Spice."
THC is the ingredient in marijuana that has psychoactive effects, while CBD is not believed to have any such effects.
"No. 1, how do we protect the public? No. 2, how do we utilize (CBD oil for) medicinal purposes?" Vickers said of the reasons of his bill.
Daw will be introducing four bills touching the cannabis issue, including one that would give patients who are using hospice care, have six months or less to live, or have been diagnosed with a terminal illness to use medical cannabis extracts. He described the measure as a "right-to-try" bill.
"(It's for when) they've exhausted all other methods of treatment, and a physician determines this is the only possibility they have for something to be done … to get relief," Daw said.
Besides providing terminally ill patients relief, the bill would also set up parameters for their experiences to be researched, he said.
"And we get the knowledge base, so in the future it becomes a lot easier to say we have a good idea that this works," Daw said.
Christine Stenquist, founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, says the idea of a right-to-try bill is bewildering to her.
"Quality of life means something. Don't offer this to me in hospice," Stenquist said.
But Daw believes that the measure, in conjunction with his other bills and the legislation proposed by Vickers, is "getting almost every legitimate patient some access."
"I believe that this will (give) access to every to legitimate patient to legitimate medicine," he said. "If the concern is getting access to patients, then this package of bills is specifically designed to do this."
That package of bills includes a measure that would allow the state Department of Agriculture to produce "full-strength cannabis" on behalf of research, Daw said. The idea, he said, is to create "a great environment where we can do real first-class research."
Last year, the Legislature set aside $500,000 for a clinical study examining the effects of cannabis on pain, to be carried out by the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative with the help of University of Utah researchers.
Despite hopes that results for the study might be ready by the beginning of the upcoming legislative session, the process has been slow, said Ivy Estabrooke, executive director of the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative.
Because it took so long to get the shipment of the drug approved, Estabrooke said, it will not be arriving until next week. She said she hopes some preliminary results will be available by the time the final days of the session arrive.
"Getting the drug is the last hurdle," Estabrooke said. "(Researchers) do have some research subjects screened and ready to be entered into the study."
Full results are expected to be completed by late June or early July, she said.
Calls for more research have been at the heart of the Utah Medical Association's opposition to medical cannabis legalization in recent years. The Utah Patients Coalition contends that an overwhelming body of research exists internationally and that calling for more studies is a delay tactic by legislators.
Daw's fourth bill makes a minor adjustment to the membership of the state-appointed Cannabinoid Product Board, which is tasked with looking into existing cannabis research. It also widens the range of which products the board is asked to study.
Asked of his take on the bills proposed by Daw and Vickers, Schanz said he was hopeful that the bills would "continue to destigmatize hemp and cannabis."7 comments on this story
However, the bills don't "do anything to give access to patients" to the full profile of the cannabis plant, which is where the initiative comes in, he said.
Daw takes strong issue with the language of the ballot initiative, saying it would make it too difficult to prosecute recreational use of cannabis and doesn't provide the state any enforcing power in ensuring only doctors of a certain type can prescribe cannabis to more than 20 percent of their patients, among other concerns.
Vickers said he wants to find a way for medical cannabis to become legal in Utah, but wants to do so more methodically than is provided for under the initiative.