Medical marijuana supporter Enedina Stanger listens to Utah senate debate on the latest of two competing plans to allow people with certain medical conditions to use marijuana Feb. 19, 2016, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer, The Associated Press)

Utah medical marijuana faces uphill battle in House after Senate’s OK

SALT LAKE CITY — A plan to legalize the use of edible, vapor and topical marijuana products by those with chronic conditions cleared a key vote in Utah’s Senate on Thursday after the Mormon church relaxed some of its opposition to the measure.

The plan from a Republican lawmaker picked up a few more votes of support in recent days after extra restrictions were added to the plan and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith to which most lawmakers belong, softened its stance.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted 17-12 Thursday to advance the plan to Utah’s House of Representatives. That 75-member chamber is also controlled by Republicans, and supporters of the medical pot plan say they don’t yet know if the measure will get enough support there.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, is pushing the measure and has cited libertarian themes to persuade his colleagues, arguing that government should not stop those in pain from seeking relief.

“I hope that we will act today, not out of fear, but out of hope and out of compassion and out of a belief that people do have a right to make decisions about their own care and that government doesn’t always get it right,” Madsen told senators before the vote.

Still, several lawmakers said they fear the proposal could lead to drug addictions or increased legalized recreational use.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said there may be some medicinal benefits to marijuana, but he thinks lawmakers are moving too fast and need to look closely at the drug. “I look back at good friends that went to Vietnam and came back addicts. They did not start out on heroin,” he said.

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, said he worried that helping a few people by legalizing the drug would open the door to many more people accessing it and struggling “to try to avoid the evils of marijuana.”

After the measure passed, supporters of the bill hugged and clapped quietly. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, had voted against the bill, but he told audience members it would be appropriate to celebrate. They then broke into loud cheers and applause.

One of those watching the vote was Enedina Stanger, who moved from Utah to Colorado in order to use marijuana legally to treat her rare genetic disorder that causes devastating spasms and frequent joint dislocations.

“We’re not trying to get high,” she said. “We’re just trying to get medicine, and we’re trying to get access to the plant.”

Madsen, the bill’s sponsor, has cited his own struggle with chronic back pain and overdose on painkillers in his push for the law.

In addition to a ban on smoking marijuana, his bill requires dispensaries to have a clinical appearance and all employees wearing white lab coats. Edible marijuana products and their packaging would not be allowed to resemble candy or be designed in a way that’s appealing to children.

To get a medical marijuana card, patients would have to have an eligible condition such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS or post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from military service.

Utah already allows a marijuana extract, called cannabidiol, to be used by those with severe epilepsy, as long as they obtain it from other states. It has low levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Another medical marijuana proposal also pending in Utah’s House of Representatives would allow the extract to be made in Utah, but critics argue that proposal doesn’t help enough people.


Follow Michelle L. Price on Twitter: @michellelprice.