Impassioned testimony Thursday night from Utahns who use marijuana to treat cancer, Crohn’s disease and chronic pain helped to propel a medicinal cannabis bill through the Legislature’s Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
The bill, Senate Bill 73
, from Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, who has himself used marijuana to treat chronic back pain, aims to make legal for medicinal use the entirely of the marijuana plant. The committee voted 4-1 to advance the bill to the Senate floor, where in 2015, a similar bill from Madsen failed to advance by a single vote.
The committee heard from doctors, patients and Madsen about the healing effects of marijuana, which proponents of the drug say has helped them abandon chronic use of opioids to battle pain.
“The issue here today is compassion and humanity,” said Dr. LeGrand Belnap, an oncologist and surgeon. “We know [marijuana] is a very safe drug. Of all of the drugs we prescribe, the margin of safety of cannabinoids is probably the best margin of safety I’ve ever seen.”
Opposition to the bill surfaced in the form of Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Eagle Forum. As Ruzicka testified, she became emotional as she insisted that marijuana is a gateway drug that could lead to heroin addiction.
But heroin and opioid addiction is exactly what Madsen and his army of supporters say marijuana helps them circumvent. For pain of all shapes and sizes, doctors are fond of prescribing opiate-based medicine that can lead to addiction and, medical marijuana advocates say, creates nasty side effects such as a dried-out colon.
The emotional testimony from a woman suffering from Crohn’s disease prompted Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, to emphatically support the bill.
Why, Urquhart wondered, is it OK for the Legislature to sit around and tacitly approve the use of opiates to treat pain when patients are desperate for a safer, more effective and less-addictive treatment?
“If something has a prescription attached to it, there’s this kind of understanding that it must be dandy,” Urquhart said. “Well, it’s not.”
Madsen’s bill is roughly 1,100 lines longer that the bill he ran in 2015. It outlines how the marijuana would be grown, where it could be sold, how it would be regulated and who could buy it. An estimated 80,000 Utahns, or 2 percent of the state’s population, could qualify under the bill for a medical marijuana card.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, criticized Madsen for parading those in pain before the committee rather than addressing the comprehensive nature of the bill itself. Weiler and Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, left the room just before the vote.
That left Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, as the lone dissenting vote. Thatcher said that without more concrete evidence that marijuana doesn’t lead to drug abuse, he couldn’t support Madsen’s bill. But Thatcher said he planned to support a bill that advanced out of a legislative committee earlier on Thursday from Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. This bill would grant around 5,000 of the state’s ailing access to cannabidiol (CBD), which has no mind-altering qualities.
Urquhart said he was reading the list of side effects from aspirin, which include ruptures in the stomach wall, intestinal bleeding and anemia.
“Powerful drugs do powerful things,” he said. “With all of these drugs, thank heavens we have them. Just because they have a made-up nonsensical name attached to them, that doesn’t mean they’re without risk.”