Gone to Pot | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Gone to Pot 

What's the worst that could happen if Utah legalized marijuana?

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You may or may not respect my opinion on the need to make medical marijuana legal in Utah. That's fine. Truth be told, my personal experience with that leafy plant is totally nonexistent. I don't use it, and have never needed to.

But I do respect opinions of trained professionals who know enough about it to be taken seriously. For instance, according to well-regarded emergency room physician and state Sen. Brian Shiozawa, Utah should legalize medical marijuana, or at least perform scientific studies necessary to determine exactly what benefits it has to offer.

He is in favor of legal studies to determine how much good, if any, medical marijuana can do as a replacement for various opioids that can lead to addiction and sometimes death.

In a recent meeting on the subject, Shiozawa summed up his thoughts this way:

"The bill that I co-sponsored to allow cannabinoid oil that helps kids with seizures has had mixed results, but it has had some positive effects to get them off of those very expensive anti-convulsive drugs that have so many side effects. Marijuana probably does have some beneficial effects, so let's find out what components and compounds in the plant are most beneficial, in what concentrations, and how to use them.

"Let's look at patients such as at the Huntsman cancer group. We know that cannabis is an appetite stimulant for those poor people who are suffering, just have no appetite and are literally wasting away, not just from the effects of the tumor, but because they are not eating.

"We know it will prolong your chances for a few years and ultimately the cancer may overtake you. But there are some thoughts that there are anti-tumor effects in the plant, and we hear stories of people who have brain cancer, and their tumors shrink and go away.

"What if there is a certain type of cancer that was treatable [by marijuana]—not just palliative, but curative. The problem is we haven't done studies to determine which parts of the plants and which tumors are affected."

So, I asked the senator, why should it fall on Utah to take the lead on this, when there are so many areas more socially in-tune with marijuana? Aren't there other areas more suitable for study, where the public might be more in favor of investigating the possibilities—say, California, for instance?

Shiozawa points to the wonderful research infrastructure at the University of Utah. "We have DEA endorsements, so they can do research," he says. "We can get a supply line from the NIH and NIDA, which is the National Institute of Drug Abuse, so they can supply the product. Our researchers can get a certain group of patients and controls to say we're going to research, for instance, PTSD, or seizures, or nausea in cancer patients. They could follow them to see the effects. And then they would do their follow up MRI studies, check their pain scales, seizure scales, etc."

And he has already proposed to the Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the state could conduct several studies for less than a million dollars—a relatively small amount of the budget when compared to, for example, Utah State Prison. Shiozawa mentions that we will spend $100 million for just stabilizing the ground for a prison site. That is 100 times more than it would cost to launch three of four potentially life-saving studies with real patients and real results.

In this next legislative session, a set of bills will address a very specific formulation of marijuana, grown in certain places here in Utah under strict government-controlled conditions. The proposal is to produce this non-recreational strain and then do specific medical research to see how well it works.

These bills will not pass unanimously, of course. On the other hand, the senator notes that Utah research institutions support these proposals and are anxious to go forward because these controlled studies will be done by our own scientists who then can publish the resulting data. "Utah religious organizations, including the LDS Church," according to Shiozawa, "are willing to say that this medicinal research is reasonable because, what if it really does help in certain circumstances?"

Also, he reminds us that people who need treatment because of MS, PTSD, chronic pain, seizures and cancer, are so desperate for medicinal treatment beyond opioids that they're now willing to go out of state to get it. "But it's incomplete research," he says. "So, why not take a relatively inexpensive but scientifically viable approach and help answer this question? Why do we have to let our people drive out of state to seek something that we could, and maybe should, have an opportunity to provide help in this state?"

Now appears to be the right time to move Utah toward some very reasonable scientific research that will add to our knowledge base and could alleviate suffering in many patients. The medical community looks at the few hundred patients who could be involved in these studies and, in addition to actually helping these people, would produce some really great data. They could publish it in the New England Journal of Medicine, and this would showcase Utah in yet another favorable scientific light.

So, what's the likelihood of getting this legislative ball rolling in the upcoming session? Shiozawa thinks there's a good possibility the Legislature will approve these bills because of obvious benefits for our citizens, our research institutions and our state.

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About The Author

Stan Rosenzweig

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