SALT LAKE CITY — As two very different bills aimed at making medical marijuana available to Utahns make their way through the Utah Legislature, both medical and religious leaders are urging lawmakers to pass cautious and research-driven legislation.
The two bills, SB73 by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, and SB89 by Sen Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, have drawn the attention of the Utah Medical Association, which is concerned about controls and distribution of products it says are still in need of research for their medical benefits.
"There's a national movement," to legalize medical marijuana, said William Hamilton, president of the Utah Medical Association, with more than 20 states so far choosing to do so. "But we think there's too big of a rush to legalize this potentially very dangerous drug."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has similar concerns and Friday issued a statement detailing "access, distribution, control" as principal concerns for opposing Madsen's bill, while not opposing nor endorsing Vickers' bill or the responsible pursuit of medical treatments associated with marijuana.
"While we are not in a position to evaluate specific medical claims, the church understands that there are some individuals who may benefit from the use of compounds found in marijuana," said church spokesman Eric Hawkins. "For that reason, although the church opposes SB73, it has raised no objection to SB89. These two competing pieces of legislation take very different approaches when it comes to issues like access, distribution, control and the potential harm of the hallucinogenic compound, THC.”
The church statement continued: “In addition to the therapeutic, treatment, and control questions, there are several other important issues to be resolved. At the forefront is that the use of medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law. We agree with groups such as the American Medical Association, who have said that further study is warranted before significant public policy decisions on marijuana are advanced. For these reasons, the church urges a cautious approach,” Hawkins said.
The statement follows an announcement from the church last week opposing Madsen's bill, which would allow nearly 100,000 Utahns with certain medical conditions access to the whole marijuana plant in edible form.
Vicker’s proposal would make cannabinoid products manufactured in the state available to a few thousand Utahns on a shorter list of medical conditions. It would only allow use of a mariuana-infused oil with high levels of CBD, a chemical believed to fight seizures, but low in THC, the hallucinogenic chemical known to give consumers the "high” associated with marijuana.
Vicker's bill is backed by the Utah Medical Association as the "slow and thoughtful" approach Utah needs, said the association's president, William Hamilton.
He worries Madsen's approach is too broad, while Vickers' bill would limit exposure to THC, what Hamilton called "the most harmful component of the plant.”
"(THC) causes drug-seeking behavior, since about 10 percent of the people who take it will become addicted to it," Hamilton said. "And we know it's very harmful to the development of the brain in adolescents who use it chronically."
Hamilton said the entire marijuana plant has not been adequately studied enough to be certain it provides real relief while not also harming patients in the long term.
Plus, Hamilton said Vicker's bill requires research, while Madsen's doesn't.
"Most of what we hear are just anecdotal stories of people that claim it helps their conditions," he said. "Marijuana is a dangerous drug, particularly for young people. One of the things we do know is it's very harmful to the development of the brain in adolescents who use it chronically. And it's not a lifesaving intervention, therefore we think Vickers' bill is the correct bill to pass to take a slow, prudent approach to what has become a national rush to legalize marijuana."
Madsen said Friday it "defies logic" to be wary of THC in cannabis, since it’s already synthesized into a pure form and prescribed in FDA-approved drugs.
Madsen also said he's frustrated that the UMA claims there is not enough research, while there are studies dating decades back that have researched marijuana's effects on medical conditions, plus testimony of Utahns who say they have found relief from the drug.
"I will agree that there is a lot of opportunity to understand how the plant works," Madsen acknowledged. "There is a lot of research to yet to be done, yes, but it's a real tragedy that the (federal) government has so screwed up this policy for so long that we haven't been able to do research on it for 70-plus years now."
Under federal law, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 substance, ranked alongside heroin, and is deemed illegal, despite some states' decisions to legalize.
Madsen said he's currently working on a substitute to the bill to make it more research friendly, but said his priority is to provide relief for Utahns.
Hamilton said Vickers' bill does more to place controls on licensing and tracking of those approved to produce and dispense the oil. Doctors recommending the oil would be registered with the state with special training, and their patients would be issued a medical cannabidoil card.
Hamilton did acknowledge, however, that Madsen's bill has more restrictions than most states.
"I think Madsen, to his credit, is trying not to let Utah turn into California, but we just think it's a lot more likely to turn into a California-type situation with his bill than with Vickers' bill," he said.
Medical marijuana creates not only medical concerns, but also cultural concerns, according to Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor at New York University and previously the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert on marijuana policy who was the chief adviser to Washington state on its marijuana law.
Kleiman said in states like California with lax medical marijuana laws, dispensaries can create an "unhealthy culture."
"Some places are run by people who genuinely believe in the therapeutic power of cannabis and give sincere advice to their customers, but others are essentially whole-sale dope dealerships," Kleiman said. "There are places where there are signs in the window that say, 'Please don't resale on the street right outside this door.'"
He said if Utah passes medical marijuana legislation, it should be prepared to have a strong "medical discipline regime," because in states that allow their doctors to have casual relationships with their patients, "the medical marijuana user looks a lot like a marijuana user and not very much like a patient."
Hamilton said that's his fear with Madsen's bill. He said even though Madsen's bill has tighter regulations in place than California, it's a much larger step than Vickers' bill.
“I don’t think Utah is ready for that," Hamilton said. "We’re not California or Oregon, Washington or Colorado. We’re culturally a different state, and I think it’s important we take a slow, prudent approach to what has become a national rush to legalize marijuana."
While the Utah Medical Association represents the state's medical leaders, Madsen indicated "at least one doctor a day" has come to the Capital this session to support his bill.
Supporters of Madsen's bill say Utahns who are suffering should not have to wait any longer for relief. They also argue Vickers' bill would provide treatment to a smaller group and limit relief since some medical conditions benefit from the THC component of the plant.
While some doctors and physicians have spoken in support of Madsen's bill, so have some religious leaders, including Pastor Steve Klemz of Zion Lutheran Church.
"As I've heard the stories of those shared by those in chronic pain, my heart goes out to those people," Klemz said. "If (medical marijuana) is going to help those to receive medical marijuana, I see it as a gift from God, quite frankly."
Klemz said he favors Madsen's bill over Vickers' because it would do more to help suffering Utahns.
"As far as health care goes, I'm tired of this way of being cautious or doing it the Utah-way, which continues to leave, especially the poor, without adequate health care," Klemz said.
The Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, issued a prepared statement Friday:
"If medical science is proving that cannabis oil is demonstrably helpful to ease the pain and suffering of people with certain medical conditions, than as a person of faith and compassion, I support the easing of that pain and that suffering and the healing of their bodies," Hayashi said.
He did not weigh in on either bill.
The Catholic Diocese of Utah, also declined to take a position on either bill Friday. Spokeswoman Jean Hill said the diocese is more concerned with other bills dealing with the death penalty, criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion.