SALT LAKE CITY — The opening of Utah’s first medical marijuana pharmacy on Monday — the same day the state’s program officially launched — served as a celebration of a goal years in the making achieved for patients and advocates.

Excited supporters crowded into Dragonfly Wellness, 711 S. State in the old Bank of Utah building, to discuss what the opening symbolizes for Utah.

“It really, literally took a community to make something like this happen,” said Narith Panh, the pharmacy’s chief strategy officer.

“We’ve got a number of different community advocates that have been fighting for patient rights and fighting for our community so that way people have a safer alternative to medicine. So many people in this room have been spending and sacrificing their time, their energy, their blood, sweat and tears. Those community advocates, this is for them today, too,” Panh said.

The company — which also holds growing and processing licenses — made use of the building’s original bank vaults and structure, allowing it to open the location in time for the program launch, Panh said.

Dragonfly Wellness is one of 14 pharmacies that were awarded licenses just two months before.

Two more pharmacies are expected to open within the next two months — one in Logan and one in Ogden — with the rest of the openings spaced over the next several months, said Drew Rigby, cannabis program manager with the Utah Department of Agriculture.

Monday’s opening also attracted several patients willing to tell their stories.

Hannah Popper, who says she’s a sexual assault survivor, was diagnosed with PTSD soon after the assault. At the time, she was studying health education in college.

“I withdrew from life. I dropped out of my classes and thought I’d never go a day without a panic attack,” she said.

“My research at school during the time, it led me to learn about medical cannabis and the ongoing battle for patient access in Utah,” recalled Popper, who says that since then, she has used marijuana to “release my trauma” and “be mentally present.”

Popper said she hopes that through Utah’s new medical marijuana program, more survivors will find treatment for their trauma.

About five years ago, Greta Schneider got into an “awful” car accident returning to northern Utah from Lake Powell, and broke her pelvis on both sides.

“As a person who is extremely active in the outdoors and grew up in the Wasatch Mountains, I was unable to continue my lifestyle of hiking and being outside. And this caused problems in other parts of my life,” she said.

The then-college student faced painful days sitting in class as her pelvis never fully healed, she said. She started skipping classes, but was ultimately able to graduate because she discovered “solace in medical cannabis rather than prescription pills.”

Marijuana allowed Schneider to enjoy her hobbies without facing the side effects she says she would have experienced with prescription medications.

Others at the event also talked about how cannabis has helped them treat their chronic pain and avoid turning to opioids.

Utah voters approved the medical marijuana ballot initiative, Proposition 2, in November 2018, legalizing doctor-approved marijuana treatment for certain health conditions. State lawmakers the next month replaced the measure with a law that they said puts tighter controls on the production, distribution and use of the drug — including the creation of a statewide patient portal.

The electronic verification system — which serves as the portal for patients’ registration into the program — went live Sunday evening. As of Monday morning, about 15 patients received patient cards, Rigby said. Those people had already received recommendations from their doctors, he said.

While some technical glitches have occurred, Rigby said the program is getting off to a smooth start and staff members are continuing to help patients enroll.

Challenges, criticisms

Getting the program up and running hasn’t come without challenges. The original law has been tweaked two times since — once during a special session after some county attorneys expressed concern with public health workers being involved in the dispensing process, which the original law called for. That requirement was removed in the special session, opening the path for private pharmacies to dispense the drug.

Most recently in this legislative session, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that removed a controversial packaging requirement and raised doctor caps, as program officials said they faced difficulty finding enough doctors willing to recommend marijuana.

The law has also faced criticism from some advocates, who disagree with the level of state involvement in the program and tight controls of the drug and have suggested patients will ultimately purchase their products in states with looser regulations like Colorado and California.

Wade Laughter, director of cannabis wellness for Dragonfly Wellness, said he started using medical marijuana about 20 years ago to treat an aggressive case of glaucoma after his prescribed eye drops made him ill. The success he saw prompted him to get into the field professionally, where he worked in California since 1999.

“The California medical cannabis space is profoundly broken. In California, we did it very wrong. It’s really commercialization, not legalization in California,” Laughter said.

He said while cannabis once came at a low cost to those who needed it medically, it’s become “very expensive or illegal again in California.” While medical marijuana could once be donated to those who needed it, Laughter said, the state made person-to-person donations illegal — closing a pathway for some who couldn’t afford it themselves.

“Part of why I say the California market is broken is the recreational market is flourishing. There’s all kinds of access for anyone over the age of 21, which is great, and I’m fully in favor of that part of legalization, and the fact that the quality of the products available for sale are beautifully high,” Laughter told the Deseret News after his remarks to the crowd.

But many of those who most need it for medical purposes are “drained of funds” by the health care system, he said, and can’t afford to purchase it from dispensaries.

In California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which all legalized recreational use, the states’ medical programs suffered, he said.

“To me, Utah, by its insistence on no recreational — we’re doing medical — there’s an opportunity for our culture to actually understand that it’s not just about getting high,” Laughter said.