On Monday, March 2, Dragonfly Wellness at 711 S. State, Utah’s first medical cannabis pharmacy, cut the ribbon and opened its doors for business. The parking lot and surrounding streets filled with cars and people celebrating the dawn of medical cannabis in Utah. If it were a Costco, you’d think there was a firesale on hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
Of the hundreds of people that filed into the door that day, only about a dozen were able to purchase cannabis. The next day? Just one patient was able to purchase the medicine they came for.
That was not for lack of willing customers. According to Narith Panh, Chief Strategy Officer of Sapa Investment Group (Dragonfly’s parent company), they turned down approximately 500 patients during the first week of operation. Only around 10% of patients were able to find their relief.
If this were any other business, they’d be out of business. What’s worse, is that it’s the state of Utah, the very regulator of medical cannabis, that is preventing needy Utahns from receiving their medical services. This wouldn’t fly in any other Utah industry.
“When we submitted our RFP to obtain a pharmacy, supporting patients was our primary focus,” Panh says. “This is people’s lives we’re talking about. Cancer patients, those with seizures, people who need this medicine. It’s been heartbreaking to tell them they can’t legally purchase our product.”
A patient must acquire a medical cannabis card before making a purchase of medical cannabis. According to the Utah Department of Health, more than 1,200 people have applied for a medical cannabis card, yet less than 100 of them have received approval.
Hundreds of other Utah patients have medical cannabis cards from other states. Utah, however, does not currently recognize those out-of-state cards. That means even more persons in need are being denied their medicine. Who would’ve believed that the state of Utah, so organized and tidy, would bungle the introduction to medical cannabis?
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now and it’s frustrating,” Panh continues. “We’re basically the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health’s call center answering questions, and we’re taking the brunt of the damage from patients upset that they can’t receive medical cannabis. We’ve done all that we could to comply with the state—now we need some help from the state so patients can receive cards.”
Despite indirectly relying on pharmacies to provide cannabis information to patients, the state has also made it difficult for pharmacies to disseminate that information. One of the clauses in Prop 2, Utah’s Medical Cannabis Program bill, is that pharmacies are prohibited from advertising. However, the bill doesn’t define what advertising is, leaving patients and pharmacies at a disadvantage. Does advertising mean you’re having a sale on gummies, or can advertising also mean giving honest, truthful information to the public? If that is the case, what the state is doing is constitutionally illegal.
How bad is it? Panh says that “when the state did their inspection, the one thing we got dinged for was having too large of a sign outside our building because that fell into the bucket of advertising.”
Can you imagine the new University of Utah Health center in Sugar House getting written up from the state for having too large of a sign? Or a traditional pharmacy? Or a doctor’s office? Why have a state-sanctioned medical cannabis program in the first place, if the state will undermine local businesses and patients?
Dragonfly Wellness employees also cannot wear their company-issued T-shirts offsite—because that’s “advertising.” The Utah legislature has a history of these “can’t see it so it must not exist in my state” policies. Think back to the Zion Curtain rule for restaurants that served alcoholic beverages, being prohibited from displaying bottles, but not the drinks themselves. Think about the kids, for heaven's sake!
But people like Panh—and others in the medical cannabis community—are thinking about the kids. An estimated 30,000 Utahns suffer from epilepsy, and many of those are children who are waiting approval from the state to acquire a medical cannabis card. What parent wouldn’t be livid if their child was suffering and waiting for an approval process that the state has had a year-and-a-half to prepare for since the passing of Prop 2?
Much like alcoholic beverages, those seeking medical cannabis have to give way to the will of legislatures who do not understand—or care to understand—the product. In November of 2018, Utahns spoke and voted on a medical cannabis program. While there will always be wrinkles to be ironed out in new systems, the state owes it to Utah patients to expedite the backlog of applicants.