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Utah medical marijuana advocates launch ballot initiative for 2018

SALT LAKE CITY— David Cromar and his son Holden, who has intractable epilepsy, are hopeful that a new ballot initiative will allow them to move back to Utah while still allowing Holden to get the medical marijuana treatment he needs.

Cromar and his son moved from Utah to Colorado in 2013 in order to gain access to medical marijuana treatments. Using a combination of cannabidiol oil, topical salves and smoking treatments, Holden has gone from experiencing 40 to 100 seizures a day, down to usually one before bed and one after waking up.

They were among dozens of patients and caregivers who gathered in support Monday morning of a 2018 medical marijuana ballot initiative. The Utah Patients Coalition filed what it believes to be a "conservative" and winnable proposal for permitting cannabis for medical use in Utah.

"We have been advocating on this issue since 2014," said Christine Stenquist, a spokeswoman for the campaign. "Patients need access, and the when is now."

The ballot initiative will provide marijuana treatment options for autism, Alzheimer's, cancer, HIV, PTSD, MS and ALS, epilepsy patients, as well as patients with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, chronic pain sufferers and those with rare conditions. Patients will be allowed to access a range of treatment options using the marijuana plant, including topical, oils and edible treatments, as well as vaporizing cannabis as an immediate relief option. It bans smoking the marijuana plant.

Proponents are hoping the initiative will provide meaningful treatment options to patients while providing carefully crafted compromises to assure the public and keep marijuana under close regulation. The language of the measure will prohibit public use, ban home growing of marijuana and maintain DUI enforcement language. The measure aims for limited licensing of growers and dispensers, while providing "seed-to-sale" law enforcement oversight. The bill also keeps tight restrictions on who can prescribe cannabis, while limiting prescription renewals within two-week periods.

Stenquist noted failed legislative efforts since 2014, which inspired the proponents to move the issue forward to a ballot initiative.

"For many people here, this bill isn't perfect, this initiative isn't perfect in the language and, in fact, it falls short of what many people believe it should be," said DJ Schanz, the campaign's co-director. "What it is is possible and what it is is it's going to pass in 2018."

The majority of Utahns, 73 percent, said they would support doctors recommending medical marijuana for treating cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer's and other serious illnesses, according to polling provided to the Utah Patients Coalition by FM3 research.

"These numbers are actually what really helped put us over the top in deciding to move forward actively with the ballot initiative," Schanz said. "There was always a bit of hesitancy, knowing if the public was with us."

The measure borrows 95 percent of its core language from the 2016 SB73 effort by former Utah Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs. While the legislative effort failed, proponents feel the language strikes the closest balance between patient needs and regulatory compromises.

Madsen's 2016 bill is one familiar to the public and has been vetted by the Legislature, according to Connor Boyack, a supporter of the initiative who said he was speaking outside of his capacity as president of the Libertas Institute.

"Just as Senate Bill 73 did, this proposal is very conservative, very regulated and probably more so than any other state in the union that has enacted medical cannabis before," Boyack said.

Boyack said the bill also provides an opportunity for community advice on where growing operations and dispensaries will be located, keeping them away from churches, parks, and residential areas. Felons will also be prohibited from working in growing and dispensing facilities.

He said the measure will be revenue neutral and will not require taxpayer support in its implementation.

Under the initiative's language, the state would have until the start of January 2021 to license growers and dispensers.

The language of the initiative includes emergency measures to shield patients and allow them to grow a limited number of marijuana plants outside of a residential area, allowing them access to their treatment if licenses are not provided to growers and dispensers. The measure also includes an override clause to prevent the state Legislature from creating policy to undermine the initiative.

"We can get (cannabidiol) here, which is great and the majority of what he needs," Cromar said, "but when he has seizure types and spastic attacks we need CBN and THC and we don't have that."

Cromar expressed hope for the measure but said much of the compromises were done with the intent of assuring nervous voters rather than expressly helping patients. He said smoking the plant, which is banned, is the best option for immediate relief.

The initiative will require signatures from 113,000 Utah voters in at least 26 of its 29 state Senate districts. The signatures would need to be submitted by April 15, 2018, but proponents are hoping to have their signatures gathered by January.

The campaign is seeking $3 million to promote the initiative, though Schanz said the group had about a third of that in pledged donations before filing the initiative.