SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers announced Friday that they’re scaling back their push to expand the state’s very limited medical marijuana law to more uses or ailments and instead will focus on calling for additional research on the drug’s effects.
Four Republican lawmakers said at a news conference that their proposals will focus on finding out more about the drug’s impact on conditions such as chronic pain and cancer. They also want to explore the risks.
A separate proposal is expected to outline what rules the state would put in place to regulate the legalization of medical cannabis if that ever happens in the future.
“What we lack in this country, precisely, is that research,” Republican Sen. Brian Shiozawa said during the event. So “we can ask and answer the question precisely, does this work and for what conditions does it work and what are the potential side-effects.”
More than two dozen states have comprehensive medical cannabis programs.
The libertarian-leaning nonprofit group Libertas Institute criticized the decision to forgo a policy proposal. That move nearly guarantees that Libertas and others will work to get an initiative on the ballot in 2018 so they can help Utah’s sick residents, said Connor Boyack, Libertas president.
“Their plight has fallen on very deaf ears, so it’s time for them to take the matter into their own hands and we’re excited to help,” Boyack said.
In order to get an initiative on the ballot, backers would have to collect thousands of signatures, get legal review and hold seven town hall meetings around the state. Utah law requires that 10 percent of the voters in 26 of 29 Senate districts sign a petition for a ballot initiative.
Gov. Gary Herbert is backing the decision to focus on research rather than move forward with broad legalization.
Herbert said Friday that the move is the right one because the medical community has concerns and there isn’t enough science to show cannabis is an effective and safe treatment.
“Unfortunately, we have just a lot of anecdotal stories, which I don’t discount,” the Republican governor said in a news conference, “But what works for you may not work for me, and vice versa.”
The governor also said that any medical cannabis program should be limited so the drug could only be prescribed by a doctor and distributed by pharmacists.
The Utah Medical Association, an influential group on Utah’s Capitol Hill, helped lead some of the push against expanding marijuana use. The group has said more research is needed and that anecdotal stories about patients being helped by marijuana does not make it a medicine.
The association’s CEO Michelle McOmber recently told the Deseret News that the term “medical marijuana” is misleading because it could lead the people to believe that the medical community or federal regulators have signed off on using it as a treatment.
The state tried to pass two separate medical marijuana plans last year, but both died amid regulatory and budgetary concerns.
Utah already allows a cannabis 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 hallucinogenic chemical in cannabis.
Rep. Gage Froerer, a Republican from Huntsville, said he’s happy the legislature will move forward while taking a calculated approach in regard to broad legalization.
“This does not mean that this is off the table for the foreseeable future,” Froerer said.