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SALT LAKE CITY — The only "medical marijuana" bill passed by Utah lawmakers in 2016 was a resolution urging the federal government to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule II drug, a change that would open the door to medical research.
Had Congress authorized the Drug Enforcement Administration to make that change, universities and pharmaceutical companies "would have already asked and answered the questions we're trying to do now," said Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, addressing his legislative colleagues Wednesday during a meeting of the Utah Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.
One of those questions is whether Utah should launch into cannabis-based medicine research on its own under state-level legislation.
"Our patients out there are desperate. They're desperate for something to be done. … They're desperate to have alternatives to opioids in terms of pain relief," said Shiozawa, an emergency room physician.
But Utah has not passed legislation that permits medical research with cannabinoids, and the process for researchers to obtain DEA licensure to conduct research with Schedule I drugs is onerous, he said.
According to the DEA website, "Schedule I drugs, substances or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." Other examples of Schedule I drugs are heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.
Meanwhile, people are suffering or showing up in emergency rooms after self-medicating with marijuana or cannabis derivatives, Shiozawa said.
"I have to treat patients every Saturday night with drug overdoses," he said. "I heard one of the researchers here say, 'Don't let the genie out of the bottle.' The genie is out of the bottle. People can acquire cannabis wherever they want. When I do my toxicology screens now in the ER, I'm getting 30 (to) 40 percent of the patients coming up positive for it already.
"So it's out there. I guess what I'm trying to do is put in some science that might come up with an efficient way to treat people who really have a need to be addressed by this," Shiozawa said.
What if small trials conducted at some of Utah's world-class research institutions such as the Huntsman Cancer Institute were able help cancer patients who lose their appetites during cancer treatment, he asked, or treat "intractable nausea" some cancer patients experience that is not well-treated by synthetic opiates?
What if cannabinoids are found to shrink tumors?
"If it does, why in the world are we not opening the door to this research?" Shiozawa said.
The state could fund limited research that likely would also be supported by federal research funding, he said.
Dr. Glen Hanson, a University of Utah researcher who is licensed by the DEA to conduct pharmacological research with Schedule I drugs, told committee members the state's research institutions "are more than eager" to help structure and guide the development of sound research policies.
But Hanson, director of the Utah Addiction Center and associate dean of the U.'s College of Dentistry, urged caution in considering legislation permitting marijuana's medical use.
Half of youths report they use marijuana illegally, he said.
"As we move down that road of legalizing it, the likelihood that you'll have greater proportions of our youth engaging in the use of this compound and these substances is almost a given," Hanson said.
The legalization of tobacco is instructive, he said.
"(Marijuana) is a substance that has many similarities to tobacco in terms of how it affects the lungs, how it affects other systems," Hanson said. Tobacco kills nearly a half-million people annually and has billions of dollars of related social costs, he said.
Yet "we cannot take it off the streets and make it illegal again. Before we do this with marijuana, we better understand what doors we're opening and realize it's going to be hard to walk back through those doors," Hanson said.
The committee reviewed several related proposals, one that would establish a regulatory framework and others that would permit the use of cannabinoid-based medicine. Aside from passing a resolution urging federal action, other marijuana bills considered by the Utah Legislature during the 2016 session failed.