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Utah legislators say they will not consider legalizing medical marijuana this year but still will push bills to fund local research about its potential benefits, and shape how the state would manage cannabis growth and distribution if it is ever approved.
"For this year, we are going to take a break" on bills to legalize medical marijuana, Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said at a Friday news conference.
The main reason, he said, is uncertainty whether the new Donald Trump administration will try to enforce federal marijuana laws. The Obama administration looked the other way as many states allowed dispensaries.
"We've got a new administration. They could easily, with the stroke of a pen, change that," said Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. "They could say we are going to start enforcing, we're going to put a moratorium on it, we're going to go after recreational [use] states. Who knows? We just do not know."
The decision to delay action comes as a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows a clear majority of Utahns favor legalization of medical marijuana.
About 54 percent support such a change, compared to 43 percent who oppose it. The poll, conducted Jan. 9-16 by Dan Jones & Associates, interviewed 605 registered voters statewide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points.
Desiree Hennessy, spokeswoman for TRUCE Utah, which started a ballot initiative last year but dropped it as lawmakers promised to address it, said the announcement Friday means an initiative "is now our only option" because "they have taken the ball out of the legislative court."
She said, "We're going to help with the ballot initiative. We're going to get this to the people."
DJ Schanz, vice president of the Libertas Institute, which pushes for individual freedom, said, "At this point, the public's option is clear: Given the resistant legislative environment, a ballot initiative is the only option available to these patients" who benefit from medical marijuana.
He added, "Despite 10 polls in the past two years showing over 60 percent of Utah voters consistently support a medical cannabis program, the Legislature continues to prove its unresponsiveness and indifference to the plight of sick and suffering Utahns hoping to use cannabis for relief or treatment" and continues to classify them as criminals.
Dan Jones, the pollster, said he has seen support for legal medical marijuana gradually increase through the years. "The more people learn about it and know how it would be dispensed and controlled, the more they favor it."
But Jones believes it may not be ripe for a ballot initiative. "You usually need at least 60 percent [support] for an initiative to pass," he said, adding that as a campaign progresses and opponents press their arguments, some of the support begins to soften.
A majority of "very active" Mormons oppose legalization, according to the poll, while less-active Mormons, those of other faiths or those unaffiliated with any religion strongly favor it, according to the poll. Republicans oppose legal medical marijuana, while Democrats and independents back it by huge margins.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said that after three years of debate on the issue, the state needs to move forward in some form.
"We need to take action," she said.
But Vickers said it makes sense to find out where the Trump administration stands before adopting a new policy in Utah.
Gov. Gary Herbert later told reporters, "I hear from the Trump administration that maybe they're going to say, we've got laws on the books so we need to enforce them."
Still, Vickers said, "It's prudent to just continue to move forward as if there would be a policy and try to determine how the state would run it," and will push a bill to do that.
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, said he will seek $900,000 to $1 million from the state budget to start studies on medical marijuana at institutions such as the University of Utah and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Those studies would focus on marijuana as an alternative to opioids and as treatment for cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder, Shiozawa said.
Herbert applauded such steps.
"Marijuana for medical use ought to be based on good science, and be based on research. Unfortunately, we have just a lot of anecdotal stories," the governor said. "I think in Utah, we're on the right pathway, the right direction."
Even with the smaller steps of advancing medical research and planning how possibly to manage medical marijuana someday, some lawmakers "think that's even going too far," said Vickers.
"We want to continue the dialogue and move forward the discussion, preparing the way for coming years," said Vickers, a pharmacist. He said he strongly opposed medical marijuana just a few years ago, but after looking into research on how it can help patients, now is sponsoring the bill on how to regulate it if eventually approved.
"If it is a medicine, treat it like a medicine" and help prevent recreational use, he said is his mantra.
Shiozawa, a hospital emergency room doctor, says he's convinced medical marijuana could help some people, but better research is needed on how and on what doses and delivery systems are best.
"Does this work, and for what conditions does it work? What are the potential side effects?" Shiozawa asked, saying the research will help answer those questions.
He envisions local research on whether medical marijuana can reduce chronic pain, reduce nausea during cancer treatment, or even fight some types of cancer itself.
Research would be done by local doctors who already have federal permission to work with Class 1 substances such as marijuana and have legal sources to obtain it, Shiozawa said,.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, also will propose a separate bill seeking to expand research.
Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this story.