Utah medical marijuana program on track, starting small

Associated Press (AP) — Utah’s new medical marijuana program will launch on time in the coming weeks, though health officials said Wednesday it will start small.

One or two dispensaries are expected to open the first week of March, when people can begin getting patient cards that will allow them to legally buy the drug in the state.

To get the cards, they will need a recommendation from a doctor, which may be a challenge because the number of medical providers interested in recommending the drug has been “very limited,” said Marc Babitz, deputy director with the Utah Department of Health.

Some medical providers may be hesitant because it remains illegal on a federal level, he said. But Utah is the 33rd state to legalize medical cannabis, and no doctors have been prosecuted.

“I think this is actually much safer than a lot of the medications that we use,” he told a panel of lawmakers.

Doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants must undergo training to approve patient cards in March, and they can begin pre-registering with the program next week, said Richard Oborn, director of the health department’s Center for Medical Cannabis.

Though few of the dispensaries will be open at first, officials expect demand to also be low to start out because patients will need to get cards before they can buy the drug. They are planning for eight dispensaries, known as pharmacies in Utah, to be open by July.

Patients with qualifying conditions have been able to use the plant with a doctor’s letter since December 2018, but they have had to cross state lines to get it. Those letters are good through the end of 2020, but they don’t allow patients to buy medical marijuana products in Utah.

Utah voters passed a ballot initiative known as Proposition 2 in November 2018 that legalized doctor-approved marijuana treatment for certain health conditions including cancer, chronic pain and epilepsy.

State lawmakers the next month replaced the measure with a law they said puts tighter controls on the production, distribution and use of the drug. It was part of a compromise involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.