Two Medical Marijuana Bills Advance to Senate Floor

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Lawmakers debated dueling bills that seek to legalize, in some form, marijuana for medicinal uses. They were heard in separate, back-to-back committee meetings Thursday and, in the end, both were advanced to the floor of the Senate.

The first, SB 89 – Medical Cannabidiol Amendments, is sponsored by Senator Evan Vickers (Republican – Cedar City). The second, SB 73 – Medical Cannabis Act, is sponsored by Senator Mark Madsen (Republican – Saratoga Springs).

SB 89 would only permit the use of cannabidiol (CBD), a marijuana extract, to treat a number of conditions whereas SB 73 allows for the less processed, whole-plant based chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the principal psychoactive constituent in cannabis, to be used in conjunction with CBD.

Under Vickers’ bill, patients with any of the following illnesses would be allowed to legally access the drug under Utah law: epilepsy, nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, appetite stimulation caused by an HIV or AIDS infection, muscle spasticity or a movement disorder, complex regional pain syndrome, peripheral neuropathy caused by diabetes, post-herpetic neuralgia, pain related to HIV or cancer, pain occurring after and related to a stroke, and phantom limb pain.

Prescribing doctors will be required to gather data on the drug and turn the information over to the Utah Department of Health for future research. The Controlled Substance Advisory Committee, a current recommending body to the Utah Legislature, would evaluate research data and make recommendations for possible changes to the qualifying illnesses and potential procedural rules.

“The ultimate goal is to provide a compassionate way to treat qualifying patients with a medicinal marijuana product under a medical environment as close to our current system of treatment as possible,” said Vickers.

His bill has been seen as the conservative counterpoint to Madsen’s proposal. However, Senator Vickers downplayed this during his remarks Thursday. “We’ve been accused of only trying to kill the other marijuana bill that’s being discussed. I guarantee you that is not even close to being true. If that were the case, we’d be talking against that bill. We have honestly taken a step forward in trying to treat patients. We are simply providing a different path to achieve the same goal. We recognize that our path is slower and more methodical, but we also strongly believe that we need to be careful how we do this. Otherwise, we will only duplicate the pitfalls of other states who experienced [medical marijuana legalization],” Vickers told the committee.

Stan Rasmussen, representing the Sutherland Institute, gave a cautious endorsement of the bill, saying it is far preferable to the alternative. “In our view, Utah would not go down a path of legalizing cannabis until it has gone through the accepted testing procedures and protocols of the American medical community, which it cannot due to the federal categorization of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. However, if the state of Utah is going to do anything it ought to take the careful and more prudent proposed approach of SB 89 instead of the riskier approach of SB 73, which in our view could do as much, if not more, harm than good.”

Emily Campbell, an Orem resident and mother of five, testified about three of her children who were diagnosed with a terminal disease called metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD). One daughter, Victoria, has already passed away. Her 17-year-old daughter, Maddie, started taking medical marijuana oils 18 months ago. “We have found that small doses of a CBD enriched with THC oil have helped her immensely.” Therefore, Campbell believes the bill doesn’t go far enough and that the whole-plant access provided in SB 73 is needed.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously to pass out SB 89 with a favorable recommendation and will now move on to the whole Senate.

Minutes later, the Senate Judiciary Committee would hear SB 73. Under the bill, an individual with a qualifying illness who registers with the Utah Department of Health will be allowed to possess and use, under certain circumstances, cannabis, a cannabis product, or a medical cannabis device.

Madsen spoke passionately about the issue, emphasizing the importance of personal freedom with regard to making medical choices. “It is about limited government, individual liberty, allowing people to own their lives, to own their own decisions, to not have government serve as a “Super Doctor” that makes a decision for every patient and that decision is no. I think it’s inappropriate. I don’t think it’s an appropriate principle of public policy that, because some may abuse, we therefore deny everyone the right. That’s not the principles that I believe in and that is not the principles that underly this bill. The principles that underly this bill are liberty and compassion.”

Doug Rice, who spoke in favor of the bill, has a daughter who suffers from Angelman syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder. Seizures are one of the key symptoms. After trying numerous anti-seizure medications, nothing seemed to work. Finally, they went to Colorado and purchased some Charlotte’s Web, a high CBD, low THC extract, which worked well. His daughter went from 2 dozen seizures a day to 2 or 3 – but it wasn’t perfect.

After returning to Colorado for a funeral, they purchased some 1:1 CBD-THC extract and the results were unbelievable. “My daughter had the first seizure-free day in three years,” Rice tearfully relayed to the committee. “I know that the combination can help. The enhanced value of having more than the CBD, having the THC in there as well. Whole-plant access is where we need to be.”

Her voice trembling, Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, decried marijuana as a gateway drug and urged against the passage of SB 73. “They do die. Just like they die from the opiates, they die from the drugs that they were led to by marijuana.”

Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross), who has several issues with the legislation, advised committee members to hold the bill for additional inquiry. “We’ve heard a litany of testimony that it’ll help people in pain and that it’s better than another bill. But this is a huge undertaking. This is a huge policy adoption and we haven’t heard anything. I’ve got probably a half-an-hour of questions myself just on provisions in the bill and I think they’re policy decisions that ought to be dealt with in committee and not on the floor of the Senate. I’m not prepared to vote on this today. I would urge the committee to adjourn and let’s take up this and actually discuss the 61 pages of legislation at a future meeting.”

Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) sympathizes with Weiler. However, he believes SB 73 should continue through the process. “The other bill is moving forward; it’ll be on the board. I think these two bills need to be discussed on the floor at about the same time, so that we can understand both bills better.”

Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican – St. George) told committee members that sometimes prescription drugs aren’t always the answer. “With all of these drugs, thank heavens we have them because they do great things for us. But just because they have a made-up, nonsensical name attached them, it doesn’t mean that they’re without risk and we heard a lot of that in the testimony. Especially when you’re dealing with pain, if, man, you know someone who has opiate addiction because they were prescribed it to avoid the pain. That’s prison; that’s hell. If there’s another powerful substance out there, a plant that citizens decide that that can help them get relief from their disease, their pain, their seizures. Just because it doesn’t have one of those made-up, ridiculous names that folks on Madison Avenue came up with, it doesn’t mean that they should be denied that. The only thing that stands between these people and relief is us.”

Senator Daniel Thatcher (Republican – West Valley City), the lone dissenting vote, echoed Ruzicka’s sentiments. “I believe that it is a gateway drug. I believe that people do experiment with drugs and I believe that this does have a very real possibility of leading to worse consequences.”

Madsen closed by reminding the committee that the federal government has taken steps to give safe harbor to states that decriminalize marijuana. “I don’t know that we expect government to heal the hurt for everyone, but it could just heal the hurt that it causes and stop hurting people by denying them relief.”

With that, the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee voted 4-1 to move SB 73 forward.

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