ST. GEORGE – Local legislators voiced their concerns at two separate events Wednesday regarding legalizing medical marijuana and the accompanying 2018 ballot initiative. Worries ranged from legal medical marijuana use being a step toward recreational use to the ballot initiative being too vague as to how the drug would be administered to patients.
During Wednesday’s first event, a presentation held at the Southwest Behavioral Health Center in St. George regarding the potential dangers of marijuana use, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, shared his thoughts on the ballot initiative before a crowd filled with fellow legislators, health care and civic officials and others.
“I’d much rather see this go through the Legislature, but the initiative shows people are tired of waiting,” Vickers said.
Like his fellow legislators, Vickers said he believes there hasn’t been enough research done on marijuana to prove its touted plethora of medicinal benefits.
Last year lawmakers passed a medical marijuana research bill, but that was it for the 2017 legislative session.
The University of Utah is currently doing some research, Vickers said. Results are anticipated by spring yet may not be published until the end of the year.
The Legislature is very cautious when approaching the issue of medical marijuana, Southern Utah Rep. Jon Stanard said. Last year they wanted to see what the Trump administration was going to do in relation to state-legalized marijuana.
The start of 2018 has left lawmakers with the same sense of caution thanks to recent actions by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Earlier this month, Sessions ended the Obama-era policy that has allowed the pot industry to thrive in recent years. The Justice Department has taken a hands-off approach for the most part, but that has been reversed. Sessions has advised federal prosecutors they are at liberty to go after cases where state law is in defiance of federal drug police.
“It’s troubling whenever you propose a law that’s counter to federal law,” Vickers said Wednesday.
Still, Vickers said that he and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, are drafting marijuana policy bills for the upcoming legislative session.
A bill Vickers is proposing focuses on regulation for the CBD oils currently popping up on store shelves, as well as regulating how medical marijuana gets to a patient.
“What form of (the medical marijuana) and professional guidance do you want to give the patient?” Vickers said. “Well, everyone’s mostly agreed it need to through a physician.”
The bill would provide defined guidelines where the medical marijuana initiative is less detailed, Vickers said.
“If its medicine, then let’s treat it like medicine,” he said, referring to having regulations governing prescriptions and dosage.
Legislation proposed by Vickers primarily applies to the CBD chemical derived from marijuana, and not THC, the psychoactive part of the plant. The ballot initiative would approve the whole plant for use, bring both chemicals along with it. That is another reason Vickers said he can not support the initiative.
Both Vickers and Stanard acknowledged the stance of wanting to wait on more research can be a hard one, especially when faced with individuals who believe they or their loved ones have benefited from medical marijuana use.
“For me, this has been a tough one,” Stanard said. “It’s hard telling people who use it that they have to wait (on research).”
Medical marijuana advocates argue enough research had been done in other countries and should be given more credence.
At the Sunshine Caucus pre-legislative forum Wednesday evening, the legislators representing St. George districts continued sharing reasons for their opposition to medical marijuana. Vickers did not attend the event.
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, echoed earlier sentiments that medical marijuana in Utah could open the door to other initiatives that may allow recreational marijuana.
“We’d be just like California,” Brooks said. “It could get easily be abused.”
Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, said he would only be open to supporting medical marijuana if the law allowing it was extremely strict and only allowed for certain specific conditions in which medical marijuana would be prescribed.
“Right now, (the medical marijuana initiative) is too lenient,” Snow said. “It would be way too easy to get a prescription, and you could even grow it in your own home.”
“There is a lot of money behind the effort to legalize medical marijuana,” Snow said. “And if you look at the polling numbers, it’s clear we have a big fight in front of us for those of us that oppose it.”
Some legislators in states where marijuana is legal proclaim its benefit to the government because of the tax revenue marijuana produces, Stanard said.
“More money does not outweigh the public health risks of marijuana,” Stanard said.
The medical marijuana ballot initiative launched by the Utah Patients Coalition in June needs to gather over 113,000 signatures across Utah by April 15 in order to get on the 2018 ballot.
The group said it had obtained 85,000 signatures just after the start of the new year.
St. George News reporter Spencer Ricks contributed to this article.
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