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Christine Stenquist suffered for 15 years from debilitating pain and nausea from an inoperable brain tumor that left her bedridden, on disability and unable to function.
Doctors tried more than 30 pain medications and she visited three different pain clinics, but nothing worked, she said, until 2½ years ago when the daughter of a Miami narcotics officer tried marijuana.
The relief, Stenquist said in an interview Thursday, was almost instantaneous and today she is drug-free, lobbying on the Utah's Capitol Hill on homeless issues and, lately, in favor of forthcoming legislation that would legalize medical marijuana the first time such an idea has been proposed in the Beehive State.
The bill is being prepared at the request of Sen. Mark Madsen, a conservative Republican who also happens to be the grandson of former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson. Last weekend, Madsen and his wife, Erin, traveled to Colorado to visit dispensaries there and see firsthand how that state deals with its medicinal marijuana program.
Madsen has declined to discuss his bill for several weeks, waiting for a draft of the legislation. He has, however, presented it to both the Republican and Democratic Senate caucuses and discussed it with various groups on Capitol Hill.
The plan would establish medicinal-marijuana dispensaries, licensed and regulated, but unlike liquor stores, for example, not run by the state. The dispensaries could sell small amounts of marijuana lozenges, oils and edible products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to customers who have a specific list of conditions and a referral from a doctor. Smoking marijuana would not be allowed.
The products would have to be tested for potency before they could be sold.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's spokesman, Marty Carpenter, says Herbert has not seen the bill, but is opposed to legalizing medical marijuana.
Last year, the Legislature approved a bill by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, allowing the use of cannabis extracts to treat a narrow spectrum of ailments, but those oils do not contain THC. This year, Froerer is sponsoring "right to try" legislation, which would allow people with terminal illnesses to use drugs that haven't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Stenquist said she would like to see the Legislature allow "compassionate care," by letting people like her with chronic conditions use marijuana products as an option.
"I don't think we should have people on their deathbeds before we say, 'Oh, yeah, now you can try it,'" she said. "We need to start addressing people with chronic illnesses."
Stenquist began getting migraines in her teens. When she was 24 years old, doctors found a large tumor on the left side of her brain. During surgery to remove the growth, she began to hemorrhage and doctors had to leave about 60 percent of the tumor in place.
"For the next 15 years I was bedridden bedridden and housebound," she said. "I didn't really do much other than be at home."
She had a stabbing pain in her left eye and nerve damage resulting from the surgery. The tumor doctors had to leave behind disrupted her equilibrium, causing vertigo and nausea. The various pain medications doctors tried often had side effects that aggravated the nausea.
At one point, about three years ago, she had been completely incapacitated for the span of six weeks.
"[I was] in bed and I wasn't walking," she said. "My husband was having to carry me to the bathroom, in the shower, just everything. I was pretty bad."
She talked to her father, who had been a narcotics officer in Miami, where she grew up, and told him she was desperate. She had tried marinol, a synthetic form of THC, and it made her ill, but thought cannabis might be an option.
"I said, 'It's not legal here, Dad,' and he said, 'You really think there's no cannabis in all of Utah?" she said.
Seconds after trying cannabis the first time, she said the nausea started to subside. Within a few months she was able to walk down the hall. In six months she was driving again. Now, she is able to work as a Capitol lobbyist on homeless issues.
For the past year, she has been completely off pharmaceuticals for the first time since she was 16.
"I'm an active member of my life and society now, and that's powerful," she said.
But, she said, she still cannot have cannabis legally in Utah.
She has a card permitting her to use medicinal marijuana in Oregon.
"It doesn't provide any safety in Utah," she said. "The black market is what I'm left with."
Now she is telling her story to legislators and hoping it helps convince them that it's time for Utah to join 23 other states including its neighbors in Nevada, Arizona and Colorado and the District of Columbia in legalizing medicinal marijuana.
That debate will play out in the remaining three weeks of the legislative session.