LOCAL NEWS

Medical Pot Users Face Barriers In Utah After Legalization

Oct 25, 2019, 11:02 AM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 5:00 pm
FILE (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — As Utah prepares to launch its medical marijuana program next year, residents who want to use the drug in the meantime are encountering skeptical doctors and the quandary of where to get the plant.

A law passed by the Utah Legislature in December 2018 allows residents to use medical marijuana before patient cards are officially doled out, which is expected to happen in March 2020 at the earliest, but they must obtain a signed letter of recommendation from a doctor, physician’s assistant or other medical provider.

Finding a doctor willing to do that has been difficult because of stigmas and fear surrounding medical marijuana, said Christine Stenquist, the director and founder of advocacy group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE.

And, the doctor’s letter doesn’t specify how patients can legally obtain medical marijuana. Although growers are beginning to cultivate the plant throughout the state, residents still can’t legally purchase medical marijuana in Utah, forcing them to drive several hours to states where the drug is legal or turn to the black market.

Mitch Hill, 48, began using medical marijuana two months ago to treat the severe back pain he’s dealt with for 10 years. It took Hill six months and three doctors to obtain a signed recommendation letter.

“Our family doctor didn’t even want to talk about it, they wanted nothing to do with it,” said Hill, a construction superintendent from the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan.

Hill drives five hours to the nearest dispensary in Colorado a few times a month to purchase medical marijuana.

Juggling work, children and his throbbing back, the trip is “a massive pain in the butt,” he said.

He turned to marijuana because he said opioids and other painkillers turned him into a “walking zombie,” feeling groggy, fatigued and nauseous. Medical marijuana helps his pain dissipate and relax, Hill said. He’s able to be more productive in his job and take care of his children.

“The letter has been a great thing for our family,” Hill said.

State health officials aren’t tracking how many people have doctor’s letters allowing them to use medical marijuana, but it appears there are thousands at least based on information from major medical providers and advocates.

The letters are a “stop-gap measure” before the state’s official medical marijuana program is launched, Evan Vickers, the Senate Republican Majority Leader, said.

“We wanted to try and give patients access to the medication as soon as possible,” he added.

He said the formal program will make it much easier for people to get and use medical marijuana, eliminating trips to neighboring states and long searches for willing doctors.

Patients must meet a list of qualifying conditions_cancer, chronic pain and epilepsy are among the most common— and have the product in the correct dosage. Under the current law, this would likely be an oil or capsule. Next year, patients must still follow the dosage requirements but can appeal to a board of medical providers if they don’t meet one of the qualifying conditions.

Utah is one of at least nine states that allowed recommendation letters to protect unregistered patients, according to data from the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for legalization.

Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project, said the states dealt with similar legal challenges and called the letters a “double-edged sword.”

“It helps sick people get relief, but it can create a false sense of security,” he said. “Moving a controlled substance across state lines is still against federal law, and then it’s up to the patients to defend themselves in court.”

Marijuana is banned at the federal level, though a congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with states’ medical marijuana programs.

Patients are putting themselves at potential risk of being arrested for drug-related crimes, advocates said, but it is unclear if law enforcement agencies are citing patients who have letters.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, the prosecutor in Utah’s most populated county, said he sees the letter as a critical legal tool in deciding whether to press charges in drug-related crimes.

“I have zero desire to prosecute a patient in need for possessing medical cannabis, and I’ve advised prosecutors the same,” Gill said.

Among Utah’s doctors, the letters have received strong, mixed reactions.

Intermountain Healthcare, the state’s largest health provider, began allowing its doctors to write letters in February. While some doctors applauded the move, others said they aren’t comfortable writing the letters, citing lack of research into medical cannabis and its federally illegal status, said Mark Briesacher, the hospital’s chief physician executive.

A growing national outbreak of lung damage linked to unregulated vaping products containing marijuana’s high-inducing ingredient THC have further compounded concerns, he said. In Utah, one person died from a vaping-related injury.

Stenquist expressed frustration with the challenges Utah’s medical cannabis program has faced but said she’s hopeful for a smooth rollout next year.

“Patients don’t want to break the law, they’re just trying to get access to medication,’ she said.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Local News

(Derek Petersen/KSL TV)...
Casey Scott, KSL TV

Casey Scott surprises Cache County drivers with free gas cards

It's time for another Free Gas Friday, and KSL TV's Casey Scott was spreading the love with drivers in Cache County this week.
15 hours ago
...
Karah Brackin

Ogden School District opens year with two new elementary schools

On Friday, over 10,000 students in the Ogden School District were back in classrooms across the city.
15 hours ago
(SLCPD)...
Josh Ellis

Teen arrested on suspicion of DUI after crashing into SLC police car, damaging another

A 17-year-old girl was arrested on suspicion of DUI after officers said she crashed into two Salt Lake City police vehicles.
15 hours ago
Third District Judge Keith Kelly declined Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by transgender girls...
Josh Ellis

Judge grants injunction allowing transgender girls to compete in high school sports

A Third District Court judge has granted an injunction that halts enforcement of a new Utah law that bans transgender girls from competing in high school sports.
15 hours ago
...
Daniella Rivera and Annie Knox, KSL TV

Location data cracks open police cases, but critics say there’s a cost to privacy

Utah police are using controversial search warrants to scoop up large dumps of digital data. They can be critical crime fighting tools, but privacy experts warn they're an unconstitutional abuse of technology.
2 days ago
...
Shelby Lofton

Spanish Fork man makes his own traffic safety signs to slow drivers near school

As school gets back in session, a Spanish Fork man is taking a different approach to encourage drivers to slow down.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Types of Computer Malware and Examples...
PC Laptops

5 Nasty Types of Computer Malware and Examples | Everything You Need to Know to Keep Your Computer and Family Safe

Here are the different types of computer malware and examples that could potentially infect your computer.
tips how to quit smoking...

7 Tips How to Quit Smoking | Quitting Smoking Might be One of the Hardest Things You Ever Do but Here’s Where You Can Start

Quitting smoking cigarettes can be incredibly difficult. Here are 7 tips how to quit smoking to help you on your quitting journey.
Photo: Storyblocks...
Blue Stakes of Utah 811

Blue Stakes of Utah 811: 5 Reasons To Call 811 Before You Dig When Working in Your Yard

Call before you dig. Even at home, you could end up with serious injuries or broken utilities just because you didn't call Blue Stakes of Utah 811.
Days of...
Days of '47 Rodeo

TRIVIA: How well do you know your rodeo? Take this quiz before you go to the Days of ’47!

The Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo presented by Zions Bank is a one-of-a-kind Gold Medal Rodeo being held July 20-23, 25 at 7:30 PM. The Days of ’47 Rodeo How well do you know your rodeo trivia? Take the quiz to test your know-all before heading out to the Days of ’47 Rodeo at the […]
cyber security through multi factor authentication setup...
Les Olson IT

How multi factor authentication setup helps companies stay safe

Multi factor authentication (MFA) setup is an important security measure that every company should implement for their workers. It’s also wise to install it for your personal and home accounts.
...
Lighting Design

Check out these stunning lamps with stained glass shades

Lamps with stained glass shades are statement pieces that are more than simply aesthetic. They also meet a functional requirement: to light up a room.
Medical Pot Users Face Barriers In Utah After Legalization