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Lawmakers to hear bill that would expand medical marijuana use in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Tenille Farr was pregnant with her fifth son when she was diagnosed with cancer in August, and her treatment options were limited.

"My options were to start chemotherapy immediately, and that wasn't an option for me with my infant inside of me," the 38-year-old mother said Wednesday. "It just didn't feel right to us."

Farr, who lives in Spanish Fork, ended up moving to Colorado for four weeks to take advantage of laws there that allow the use of medicinal marijuana, which seemed to make a difference in her condition. She also spent some time using cannabis oil in California, where it is also legalized.

"This plant obviously has some purpose," she said, adding that her conservative, LDS beliefs that illicit drug use is wrong makes it hard to do. "I want to keep the law."

She can't legally use the drug in Utah.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, is backing SB259, which would legalize medicinal marijuana use and production in Utah. His bill identifies at least nine qualifying illnesses where cannabis might provide relief, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, muscle spasms or seizures, and severe nausea or pain, among others. He said it provides an alternative for patients to an otherwise potentially addicting opioid regimen to treat various conditions.

"'Reefer Madness' is neither medical research nor public policy, it's a propaganda movie," he said. "We can't be basing public policy on that anymore."

On orders from his doctor, Madsen said he recently drove to Colorado to try cannabis tinctures and candies for his persistent back pain, following multiple surgeries and procedures. He said he's always kept an open mind about others' choices about marijuana use.

"I think it's effective," he said. "It has effective analgesic properties. I experienced a diminution in my level of pain."

Twenty-five states have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana use, with additional states considering proposals to do so.

Utah lawmakers passed a watered-down bill involving medical marijuana use last year, enabling patients with a certain type of neurological condition to legally use hemp extract, or cannabis oil, for treatment of seizures. The law, however, precludes anyone else from possession or use of the product.

After his experiment, Madsen said he's not sure that marijuana belongs alongside heroin and ecstasy on a list of the most dangerous class of drugs in the country. He said his perspective on using it for medicinal purposes, however, changed when epileptic kids "were wheeled onto the floor last year."

"We were able to administer compassionate relief to those kids," he said, adding that SB259 doesn't address recreational use, but places tight regulations on the growth, processing, testing and dispensing of cannabis products in Utah for health reasons only, "to make sure the people who really do need it are the ones who get it."

"We know people are going to use recreationally," Madsen said, adding that they are now and will continue. "But let's allow those who have a medical need and whose physicians feel that it might be a better alternative to have that freedom. Let's not forgo them that choice because others would choose to break the law."

Farr, who blogs about her condition, gave birth to a healthy baby boy on Jan. 4 but has gone without the help of medicinal marijuana since mid-December. She said some of her cancer symptoms have returned and that she can feel a visibly sized lump growing in her neck.

"My cancer is not gone," she said. "I'm doing all I can, naturally, to help."

Even though she is no longer pregnant, chemo is still not a solid option for her.

"If I know (medicinal marijuana) will help this cancer, I have a hard time doing chemotherapy," Farr said. While cancer is scary, she said she's not afraid of it. "If nothing worked, of course I would do chemo. Chemo is an option, it's just not really an option when I have another one that I know works."

Her preferred method of using marijuana to treat her cancer is juicing the plant's leaves, which have no psychotropic properties and are often discarded during production. She has also used oil under her tongue.

"I'm just a mom who is trying to be here for my family and my kids and do it the best way I know how," Farr said.

The problem is that Farr's family is in Utah and she wants to remain in the state, but won't be able to if medicinal marijuana isn't legalized.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, however, said he's "not nuts about" the proposal, suggesting it could be an attempt to legalize marijuana.

"We're not physicians. I don't know why, in regards to medical care, it's a political question," Hughes told reporters Wednesday. "What I worry is, we're not really talking about medical care, we're just trying potentially to legalize marijuana. I'm not interested in going in that direction."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that he hopes to avoid the "slippery slope" of legalizing marijuana in the state.

"I'm a little concerned about what I've observed in other states," he said, adding that he fears legalization for medicinal purposes could "morph" into increased recreational use.

"As a controlled substance, if we can use the marijuana plant or cannabis oil under the strict instructions of a certified medical doctor, and it can help with somebody's medical condition, then it probably could be appropriately utilized. But we need to be very, very careful as we go down that road," Herbert said.

But it's a road Christine Stenquist, of Kaysville, wouldn't be on without medicinal marijuana. Cannabis was a last resort after decades of dealing with pain that was initially caused by a very large brain tumor.

"I felt like I had dedicated myself to Western medicine and getting myself well, and it wasn't working for me and I had hit a wall," she said. Stenquist ultimately obtained a medical card from an Oregon doctor and travels there for treatment, which has helped her walk without a cane and function normally for the first time in years.

The 42-year-old mother of four later founded the Drug Policy Project of Utah, a nonprofit support group that brought her in contact with many others who suffer in Utah without the legalized use of cannabis.

"The sky has not fallen because a little bit of cannabis has been legalized in Utah," said Connor Boyack, president of the local Libertas Institute, which has worked with Madsen on drafting his bill, which will be heard for the first time in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday at 8 a.m. He said the biggest obstacle in legalizing medicinal marijuana in Utah is rampant misconceptions and existing prejudices among Utah lawmakers.

"There is a great need to expand the program and get the government out of the doctor-patient relationship," Boyack said.

Smoking of cannabis products, if legalized in Utah, would still be prohibited, as would combustion of the product of any kind. Madsen said it would continue to be illegal to advertise or sell any paraphernalia used to smoke marijuana.

The available delivery methods, however, would include oral ingestion of oil, topical application similar to a nicotine patch, and inhalation when cannabis is vaporized, but combustion would not be possible with the type of products used to produce medicinal quality marijuana, Boyack said.

"Doctors and patients should have the right to try what works for them to get relief or even a cure for the condition they have," he said.

Boyack is optimistic the law will be supported by lawmakers, who, he said, are "coming around to the idea."

"At the end of the day, it's difficult to see someone suffering tremendously and tell them medication that could help cannot be available to them," Boyack said. "It's a bad call as a legislator and as a human being to stand in the way of a lifesaving product."

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