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SALT LAKE CITY — Three Utahns told lawmakers Wednesday that they are using marijuana, even though it is illegal in the state.
It was part of their plea, at the urging of Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, to encourage state leaders to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.
"This is about the patients," Madsen said. "I came into this issue because of the patients, because of the people who are suffering needlessly because of government policy."
Madsen and others are drafting a bill to present to lawmakers in January. His first attempt during the 2015 Legislature failed, as lawmakers wanted to proceed more cautiously, to have more time to devote to studying the issue and its potential impacts in Utah.
A form of medical marijuana was approved by state leaders in 2014 to be used in certain epileptic children, but Madsen said a pool of potential recipients who could benefit is "huge."
"I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to the people suffering these conditions," he said, adding that he's hoping to completely avoid any reference to making recreational marijuana legal in the state, which is not at all his intent.
Madsen's proposal, he said, would outlaw smoking the drug, advertising of any kind, as well as it taking the form of candy and other goods directed at children.
It remains unclear whether the individuals who testified Wednesday are leaving Utah to obtain and/or use the products meant to alleviate their pain and/or suffering, but each reported successful results.
"I had no idea what it would do for me," Amanda Ellis-Graham told members of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee. "I can't believe that something like this is getting my life back when I was just trying to get off my medications."
The 35-year-old has been living with multiple sclerosis for 17 years and had been taking some hefty doses of prescription opiates, or painkillers, as well as benzodiazepines, which were a threat to her life. The intensity of her condition, as well as side effects from medications, had her bound to a wheelchair and unable to work or bear children.
She said the anti-inflammatory properties of marijuana's tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, has helped to significantly reduce her painful symptoms, enough that she's left the wheelchair and is increasing her gait.
"It is changing my life," Ellis-Graham said. "I haven't been this active in society and happy in a long time."
Also benefitting from medicinal marijuana preparations are 25 Utah kids who are participating in a local study that looks at the effectiveness of cannabinoid treatment for epileptic seizures. Those results, although preliminary, have been promising, said Dr. Edward Clark, chairman of the department of pediatrics at University of Utah Healthcare and chief medical officer at Intermountain Healthcare's Primary Children's Hospital.
Clark said at least 1,500 children in Utah experience a type of seizure that is not responsive to any of the 15 drugs available that are FDA- and DEA-approved for the treatment of seizures. And many of those drugs come with risky and/or long-term side effects.
"There is a need for new and innovative medications," Clark said, adding that researchers are only a couple years into the study of marijuana preparations and none are available in the United States. Research, he added, is expensive, and less than a year into the local double-blind study, the hospital has expended $100,000 to enroll, follow and evaluate the 25 participating Utah children.
"More than 50 percent have had improvement," Clark said, adding that each of those has experienced a "substantial reduction in seizure activity" while taking cannabinoid oil for treatment. "One has had no seizures in 12 weeks."
The marijuana treatment, however, hasn't been free from side effects, most of which Clark reports as "mild." He said it could take a few years to perfect the preparation and dosing mechanisms.
"The process of learning and extracting and purifying have been part of the development of effective pharmaceuticals for a very long time," Clark said. The local study is part of a nationwide look at the effectiveness of new products.
But without approval of the federal government to change the drug from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, research on actual marijuana for medical use is "incredibly hampered," Madsen said. As a Schedule I drug — akin to heroin, ecstasy and LSD — research on marijuana, cannabis and THC is prohibited, as are sources of funding for it.
This is about the patients. I came into this issue because of the patients, because of the people who are suffering needlessly because of government policy.
–Sen Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs
To date, 23 states have laws allowing medical marijuana. The federal government has issued "enforcement priorities" to govern how it will respond to those states and any that adopt policies on the federally illegal drug.
New marijuana laws, however, could come with various implications to locally operated but federally insured banks, as well as to employees protected under federal discrimination rules, according to Cathy Dupont, associate general counsel to the interim committee. She also said legalizing marijuana could "set up tension" between the feds on gun laws.
Madsen invited lawmakers to join him on a "research trip" to Arizona later this year to witness how medical marijuana is distributed and regulated there. He said what is done in Arizona is more similar to what he is trying to accomplish in Utah and is far different from the "checkered tale" being told in Colorado.
For some Utahns, though, medical marijuana is their "only option" to avoid dangerous side effects and toxic doses of harmful medications.
"I didn't even know the possibility of medical cannabis existed until a year ago," said Ben Flint, a 30-year-old Utahn who suffers from recurring seizures. He said he may have a chance to receive medical marijuana later this year, but getting through the state's requirements has cost him his livelihood.
Committee Chairman Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, said he has four horses that were reared and trained together and are now difficult and sometimes dangerous to separate. As far as marijuana is concerned, he said, "I'm willing to let one horse out of the corral, but that's all. It's a difficult challenge to make sure we don't go beyond that."
His concerns are echoed by some committee members and other lawmakers, who have stood against expanding the law to include medicinal use. But others want to see the state delve into further discovery of the drug's potential.
The interim committee is set to discuss medical marijuana during at least two more meetings this year, in August and October. Committee Chairman Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, are also drafting their own bill on the matter, which is expected to be presented in August.