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.

By Morgan Smith

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