SALT LAKE CITY — Diane and Russ Jones' marriage has always thrived on alfalfa. The pair has grown the sweet, leafy crop near their home in central Utah together for more than 30 years — but they were ready for a change.
Russ Jones had read about the benefits of medical marijuana after battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, an aggressive cancer that attacks the immune system. When Utah announced last week it would be accepting applications for cannabis growers, he saw a great opportunity.
"It would be really nice to grow something that helps other people deal with their pain," he said.
The Joneses joined more than 50 people in a packed meeting held Wednesday by state agriculture officials to discuss Utah's medical marijuana program.
At the meeting, potential marijuana growers raised concerns about the limitations of the state's proposed cultivation regulations.
Utah will allow 10 growers to produce the state's medical marijuana and soon open the application to out-of-state growers. Some farmers said the change puts local growers at a disadvantage.
Others questioned restrictions on where and how pot can be grown. The proposed regulations limit the stacking of cannabis plants and outlines strict security requirements for cultivation facilities, creating additional obstacles for growers, some farmers said. Interested farmers said those requirements will be costly.
"It's daunting to have regulations still being hammered out after the application has opened," said Jack Rubin, a Utah farmer interested in growing marijuana. "You don't know what you're getting into."
Drew Rigby, the cannabis coordinator for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said the agency would consider public feedback in updating the rules.
He declined to comment on how many grower applications Utah has received in its first week. The state plans to award licenses to growers next month.
Marijuana legalization has faced a tense, uphill battle in Utah since residents voted in favor of medical usage of the plant.
Utah voters approved a medical cannabis program via ballot Proposition 2 during last year's election, effective Dec. 1. But the Utah Legislature replaced it with HB3001 in a special session, days after the new law took effect, to implement a compromise law. It bans many marijuana edibles, prevents people from growing marijuana if they live far from a dispensary and makes fewer medical conditions eligible for treatment with pot.
The groups in the compromise talks included the Proposition 2 campaign itself, called the Utah Patients Coalition; Libertas Institute, which had supported the initiative; and influential anti-Proposition 2 groups the Utah Medical Association and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Cannabis advocacy groups Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah responded by suing the state in December to block the compromise, arguing that it was unconstitutional to replace a law passed by voters and questioning whether the changes are at odds with federal laws that still say marijuana is illegal, said Rocky Anderson, an attorney representing two advocacy groups.
Marijuana dispensaries are set to open in Utah next year.