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

Local News

crayons...

Daniel Woodruff

Utah Legislature approves allowing more children at unlicensed day care facilities

A bill in the Utah Legislature that aims to allow unlicensed providers to care for up to eight children instead of six passed the house and senate. It now awaits Gov. Cox's signature.

2 hours ago

Neilson-Berg explaining the hassles and trouble she has been going through to get into contact with...

Matt Gephardt

Get Gephardt helps Google Fiber customer get her internet fixed after customer service calls go nowhere

When a Salt Lake City woman's internet connection went down, and she couldn't get a straight answer as to when it would be back up, she decided to Get Gephardt.

2 hours ago

a sign announcing rent...

Daniel Woodruff

Utah senators kill compromise bill giving tenants more notice of rent increases

A Utah lawmaker’s push to give tenants more notice of rent increases hit a wall as Republicans on a Senate committee voted not to advance it.

3 hours ago

dome and side of the Utah Capitol...

Daniella Rivera and Annie Knox, KSL TV

Truth Test: Fact-checking claims from lawmakers who voted to make their calendars secret

The KSL Investigators put lawmakers’ statements about a measure that would conceal their calendars through the KSL Truth Test.

3 hours ago

emergency lights...

Larry D. Curtis

Man ejected, in critical condition after single-car rollover on I-15 in central Utah

After an emergency call of reckless driving, a man was taken to a hospital in critical condition in a single car crash in central Utah.

3 hours ago

Sean Reyes...

Keira Fairmont

Fight for Transparency: KSL’s 15-month long battle to get Sean Reyes’ calendar

Utah’s Attorney General Sean Reyes still refuses to release his professional calendar despite State Records Committee and Judge’s orders. Now Utah Lawmakers have passed a bill to seal all public officials’ calendars.

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Medical Pot Users Face Barriers In Utah After Legalization