Medical marijuana advocate Christine Stenquist speaks to reporters following a hearing at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Stenquist says the state needs comprehensive medical marijuana legalization so everyone with chronic pain, and not just those with terminally ill conditions, can get relief. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

Utah moves forward with bills allowing marijuana use by terminally ill, research grows

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah measures that would allow terminally ill people to use certain forms of marijuana and farmers to grow it for research purposes passed their first legislative hurdle Wednesday despite criticism from medical marijuana advocates that the piecemeal approach doesn’t go far enough.

The proposals would help dying people try a potentially helpful alternative and provide a way for researchers to get marijuana locally, said Rep. Brad Daw, a Republican from Orem who is sponsoring the bills. They dovetail with a law he sponsored last year allowing for additional research on the drug’s effects.

Rep. Edward Redd, a Republican from Logan, called the measures a good way to try to “move the ball forward in a very careful and appropriate way.”

But advocate Christine Stenquist said the state needs comprehensive medical marijuana legalization so everyone with chronic pain can get relief, not just people whose doctors say they are dying. The 45-year-old suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that affects a nerve linked to the face.

“I don’t suspect I’ll be in hospice anytime soon, but I live with chronic pain,” Stenquist said. “Utah has a problem with an opioid crisis, not a hospice crisis. We have people who are dying from opioids because of chronic pain.”

Lawmakers have rejected a broad medical pot law during the last three consecutive sessions. Now, advocates are going to voters, gathering signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot.

Organizers have collected 102,000 signatures — close to the 113,000 needed by mid-April, Stenquist said.

The Utah Chiefs of Police Association and Sheriffs Association opposes both legislative measures because they violate U.S. law, Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt said at a committee hearing.

“We think we are duty-bound morally to respect federal law,” Watt said.

Several lawmakers on the committee expressed concern about whether the proposal to allow growing pot for research would put the state in the crosshairs of the federal government. The Justice Department said in January that it was ditching its hands-off approach to states that have legalized marijuana.

But the effect depends on whether federal prosecutors crack down on marijuana businesses operating legally under state laws.

Daw acknowledged that the Drug Enforcement Administration would say his measures are illegal but said there’s no congressional funding for prosecuting marijuana production in states that allow it.

Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber said her group is on board with allowing farmers to grow marijuana but wants to ensure the language in the final version is acceptable. The association doesn’t yet have a position on the measure allowing the terminally ill to use pot, saying there are still many unanswered questions.

That proposal would limit doctors to recommending the drug to no more than 15 patients at a time. Advocates questioned that limit, but committee co-chairman Rep. Michael Kennedy said it’s a good idea to prevent any one physician becoming the “candy doctor” for the entire state.

The proposals now move to a vote before the full House at a later date.

It’s unknown if Republican Gov. Gary Herbert would support the measures. He said earlier this year that he thinks medical marijuana will be legalized someday — if there is appropriate research and scientific evidence to back it up.