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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch supports efforts in Utah and elsewhere to study the medicinal effects of marijuana, but condemns the federal "regulatory acrobatics" required of researchers studying the plant.
"Under current law, those who want to complete research on the benefits of medical marijuana must engage in a complex application process and interact with several federal agencies. … The longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer," Hatch, R-Utah, said Friday through his spokesman.
The senator said the application process frequently requires more than a year for researchers to resolve.
"Currently, the (Food and Drug Administration) estimates that a drug takes a minimum of seven years to move from initial studies to FDA approval," Hatch told KSL. "The regulatory hoops researchers have to jump through significantly delay the production of potentially life-changing medications that Americans need."
Hatch was asked for his take on a study into marijuana's effects on pain that was commissioned by state lawmakers earlier this year.
"In Utah and across the nation, opioid abuse continues to ravage good, hard-working families who have fallen captive to the tyranny of addiction. Because Utahns have watched their family members, friends, and neighbors grapple with this epidemic, many are seeking non-narcotic alternatives that can help with pain," he replied. "Medical marijuana is just one such alternative."
In September, Hatch introduced the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017, a bill that he says would cut down on the hoops researchers have to jump through to get their studies approved. The senator's office also said at the time that the bill would require the U.S. Attorney General's Office to increase the allowed national quota of marijuana — or the amount allocated for research — to "meet … changing medical, scientific and industrial needs."
"The MEDS Act would encourage this research through reduced regulatory interference, and it would expand sources of research-grade marijuana with the assurance of a quality-controlled product," Hatch said Friday. "My proposal would also allow for the commercial production of drugs developed from marijuana once they have been approved by the FDA."
The bill would also prohibit certain federal review processes from being put into place as requirements for researchers. However, it would not go so far as to direct the Drug Enforcement Agency to look into changing its classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a designation that Utah researchers have said is a major reason it is difficult to study the plant in the United States.
The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
University of Utah professors, in partnership with the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative, have been placed in charge of a state-funded clinical study examining whether certain combinations of marijuana ingredients can effectively treat pain.
Those who are carrying out the $500,000 study have told KSL it will fill in important gaps in existing research by providing precise data about which concentration levels of marijuana's active ingredient might work best, using metrics that do not rely on self-reporting, and zeroing in specifically on one medicinal use.
But the Utah Patients Coalition, the campaign seeking to put the legalization of medicinal marijuana on the ballot of Utah voters in November 2018, has reacted with skepticism to the study, questioning whether state lawmakers commissioned it as "a delay tactic."
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said the senator has also talked with the Utah Patients Coalition about further cannabis research that he "hopes his legislation can help bolster."
“Sen. Hatch has met with the Utah Patients Coalition and spoken to countless Utah leaders and hopes his legislation can help bolster medical marijuana research in Utah and around the country,” he said.
Whitlock said he understands why some are surprised at Hatch's stance regarding medical marijuana issues.
“As a conservative Republican and a member of the LDS Church, Sen. Hatch understands why some might see him as an unlikely messenger on this issue," Whitlock said. "But he also has a long history of fighting for those suffering from chronic pain, rare diseases and debilitating illness, and this proposal could help millions of Americans suffering from a wide range of conditions.”