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More than 3 out of 5 Utahns want to see medicinal marijuana legalized in the state, but obstacles and opposition remain as the 2016 Legislature considers making Utah the 24th state to implement such a program.
Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he supports the "concept" of medical marijuana and believes it makes sense to most people, but it would have to be done with strict controls on the growth and distribution, and only if its effectiveness were scientifically proven.
"The discussion is now at hand, the time is nigh to see if we can find a pathway forward on this," Herbert said. "But I'm not interested in having Dr. Feelgood out there saying, 'Yeah, yeah, que pasa? Here's your doobie for the day and you'll feel better.' "
A couple of competing medical cannabis bills are being proposed during the upcoming legislative session.
One, sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, would create a state-regulated network of marijuana-cultivation facilities and dispensaries. Patients diagnosed by a doctor with one of a list of illnesses could buy and use the marijuana-based products to treat their ailments and be protected from prosecution by law enforcement.
The other measure, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, is more narrow in scope. It would not allow products with THC one of the active chemicals in marijuana to be used. Other extracts could be taken for a narrower list of ailments, and children would not be included in the program.
Utahns appear, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, ready to embrace some form of legalization, according to the new poll conducted by SurveyUSA for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Sixty-one percent of Utahns support legalization, while 33 percent oppose it. The backing marks a 10-point increase from last year, when a Tribune poll found that 51 percent supported the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes.
"If we can get the Legislature to be at least as smart as the people in this state," Madsen said, "I think we'll have a good session."
In addition to finding that 61 percent of registered voters support the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes, the poll found a plurality of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 48 percent support legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes. Eighty percent of non-Mormons support the idea.
And 41 percent of Republicans support legalizing medicinal marijuana, while 48 percent are opposed. Democrats and independents favor legalization by a wide margin 83 percent and 70 percent, respectively.
Herbert says there may be a way for Utah to become the latest state to adopt a medicinal-marijuana program, provided strict controls and oversight are in place.
"I have no problem with medical marijuana. We just need to have a process in place where it becomes and should be a controlled substance," Herbert said in an interview. "There should be science behind the [distribution] of the product. We ought not just have people self-medicating and saying, 'I think it's going to be OK.' "
Ultimately, the governor said, it should be Congress that fixes the law nationwide, if it needs to be fixed, rather than having President Barack Obama's administration decide which laws it will enforce.
"It gives me pause when we have a state like Colorado, our neighbor, that's dispensing marijuana in violation of the federal law and the federal law enforcement people and this administration says, 'Eh. I don't care,' " Herbert said. "That's not the way it's designed to be. … It bothers me and, I think, everyone, that the federal government is ignoring the issue and not dealing with it."
Federal action doesn't necessarily need to precede movement from the state, Herbert said, suggesting they could move on "parallel" paths.
But Madsen said the state shouldn't wait for permission from the federal government before its legislators act to alleviate the suffering of Utahns.
"The federal government has screwed this policy up and put us way behind the curve," Madsen said. "I think for us to now wait for the bureaucrats in lab coats to finally get their act together while people suffer is really almost an immoral position."
However, Derek Monson, director of public policy for the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, said it would be a mistake for Utah to legalize a drug that hasn't been carefully studied and could have adverse effects.
"It's not really liberal or conservative to gamble with the well-being of people, especially vulnerable people in pain, by legalizing treatments that aren't backed up by medical evidence," Monson said. "Everyone wants to help people, of course, but it's not kind to them or really helpful to them to gamble their lives in ways that might have some bad side effects that could potentially put them in worse situations than they were before."
Monson said the Daw-Vickers bill is a more sensible approach and there is more evidence proving the effectiveness of the cannabidiol oils it would make available than there is for substances containing THC.
Advocates for legalizing medical marijuana have already sought to put a human face on the topic, holding a rally at the state Capitol last week in which a few dozen patients with various ailments who say they have benefited from medical cannabis voiced their support for legalizing the drug, rather than forcing them to break the law.
One of those people was Amanda Ellis Graham who was diagnosed 18 years ago with multiple sclerosis and suffers from numbness, dizziness and muscle contractions. She consulted with her doctor before trying cannabis 2½ years ago in an effort to try to cut back on other medications.
"It started to heal my body," she said. She regained mobility, her energy returned, the dizziness went away and she was able to drive again.
"It's frustrating to have your hands tied, but at the same time, it is breaking the law," she said. "But with me, I kind of feel like I didn't have a life before anyway."
Patients and advocates promise to keep the heat on the Legislature when it convenes its 45-day session Monday.
The Tribune/Hinckley poll reflects the views of 989 Utah registered voters, contacted on both land lines and cellphones. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.