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2 medical marijuana bills advance in Utah


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SALT LAKE CITY — Two very different bills that would make medical marijuana available to small percentages of Utahns cleared their first hurdles at the Utah Legislature on Thursday.

Two-hour committee hearings for each bill ended with the approval of lawmakers and an appointment on the Senate floor to continue debate on both Sen. Evan Vickers' SB89, which would make cannabidiol products manufactured in the state available to a select number of patients; and Sen. Mark Madsen's SB73, which would create access to the whole marijuana plant for also a short list of medical conditions.

"I know how they suffer," said Dr. Perry Fine, a physician, professor and researcher at the University of Utah.

Fine admitted that doctors are limited with FDA-approved medical tools, but encouraged lawmakers to go with "the highly rational and responsible approach" offered in Vickers' bill.

"Suffering demands compassion, science demands objectively defined rigor, and good medicine demands both," he said.

But Madsen pleaded with his colleagues to extend liberty to all Utahns, in the freedom to choose the best treatment options for themselves.

"I feel for these families," he said.

The majority of Thursday's testimony was offered by patients and doctors, some caregivers and others experienced in taking or giving prescription opiate painkillers or putting up with various debilitating diseases and/or illnesses for which they can only find relief by using marijuana, as some of them tearfully reported.

"I didn't believe it had therapeutic value until I tried it," said Kenneth Thomason, who, after six years of treatments and surgeries and "living on opioids," recently received a terminal cancer diagnosis. "There are people who are dying slowly and are in a lot of pain," he told lawmakers.

Thomason, 45, said he uses marijuana to sustain his life, to stabilize his emotions and his body, and to help him cut back on the harmful cocktail of narcotics he is legally prescribed.

"I've heard it said that marijuana is the bridge between science and the spirit of recovery," he said, adding that he'd "be dead" without it.

Patients told lawmakers they rely on the hope that marijuana provides them, however unfounded it may be, to get them through the struggles of daily life.

After hearing remarks from 23-year-old Crohn's disease survivor Dallas Sainsbury, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said it would be "absolutely unconscionable for us to do nothing."

"I, like many others, am running out of options," Sainsbury said, adding that she experienced "a turning point" after ingesting marijuana while recently visiting Colorado with friends. Using it, she's been able to wean herself off some of the 18 pills she takes multiple times each day for her condition, and promises she would never use marijuana to "get high."

"I'm already high every day," she tearfully told members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

After hours of Utahns asking for access, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he was disappointed the merits of the bill were left undiscussed. He said he knows sick people can be helped by the effects of marijuana, and wanted to get to the policies of Madsen's 61-page bill, which has been reworked after failing to make it through last year.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he has not taken a position on either bill.

"My belief is the timing is good. We ought to have the discussion on medical marijuana," the governor said, calling for more than "anecdotal evidence" it brings relief. "It would be nice if we could find the science to back it up. I think there needs to be some research done."

Herbert said the state needs to be "cautious and methodical" in approaching legalizing marijuana as a medical product.

Senate leadership seemed to also value the cautious approach.

"I'm certainly for anything that will help people, and I think that one definitely does without raising some of the questions that the other one does," Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said Thursday.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, cast the deciding vote against Madsen's bill last year and isn't a yes vote now. He said he's still considering what Vickers' measure would do.

Senate Democrats also don't have a position on the bills. Senate Minority Caucus Manager Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he could probably vote for both bills.

Vickers' bill, limiting treatment to a single, but proven extract of the plant, passed through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously, despite a number of dissenters who are pushing for whole plant access.

Lissa Lander, 36, said she lives in constant pain every day from complex regional pain syndrome, and is "afraid senators would vote for (Vickers') bill because it is safe."

Her condition, she said, isn't responsive to just cannabidiol, or CBD, but requires an equal ratio of tetrahydocannabinol, or THC, the main active chemical compound in cannabis. THC provides the psychoactive component of marijuana, but is believed by many to produce an "entourage effect," reacting with cannabidiol to produce the best relief for some patients.

Lander, however, won't use marijuana as long as she is a resident in Utah.

"I don't want to put my children at risk," she said. "But it's not fair to have to move to a state where it is legal to use a medication that I know will provide relief."

The Utah Medical Association stands in support of the "slow and thoughtful approach" contained in Vickers' bill, said CEO Michelle McOmber. "We think Sen. Madsen's bill goes way too far," adding there is "no scientific evidence" to support the claims patients make.

There are "plenty of anecdotal stories," she said.

Conservative political activist Gayle Ruzicka, leader of the Utah Eagle Forum, said legalization of marijuana would only create more dependent and addicted drug users in the state.

And Stan Rasmussen, Sutherland Institute director of public affairs, said his conservative organization supports Vickers' bill, as well.

"If the state of Utah is going to do anything, it ought to be the careful, more prudent approach," he said, adding that Madsen's bill "could do as much, if not more harm than good."

Urquhart said even legalized drugs like aspirin have lengthy lists of side effects, and if marijuana can treat the pain that is "incapacitating at times" for some Utahns, then government should at least look into it.

"The only thing that stands between these people and relief is us," he said.

Madsen's bill will be heard on the Senate floor, passing the committee hearing with four votes in approval and Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, dissenting.

Weiler was not present for the vote Thursday, but said he was not prepared to make a decision on the matter, having not discussed much of what he called "a huge undertaking."

"We need this now," said Jackie Dillard. She's had 37 major surgeries in her 28 years of life and has taken potent narcotics for her complex joint disease for 15 years. "So many of us don't have time."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche and Dennis Romboy

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