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Utah to welcome marijuana for limited medical use

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 2:48 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2014 file photo, Aileen Burger holds up a bottle of cannabis-infused oil used to treat her 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who suffers from severe epilepsy, at her home in Colorado Springs, Colo. Parents of Utah children with severe epilepsy are cheering a new state law that allows them to obtain the extract, which comes from a strain of marijuana called Charlotte's Web, and is believed to help with seizures, but it's unclear how and when they'll procure it.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Parents of Utah children with severe epilepsy are cheering a new state law that allows them to obtain a marijuana extract they say helps with seizures, but procuring it involves navigating a thorny set of state and federal laws.

Utah's Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has already approved the law and is holding a signing ceremony Tuesday afternoon.

The new law doesn't allow medical marijuana production in Utah but allows families meeting certain restrictions to obtain the extract from other states.

Similar legislation is pending in at least one other state, and Utah advocates hope more will follow.

The marijuana extract, which some believe helps with a severe form of epilepsy, is produced in nearby Colorado and is designed not to produce a high.

But Colorado experts say restrictions passed in that state to appease the federal government make it a murky process for Utah families to actually get marijuana-derived products, particularly as all state medical marijuana laws are illegal under federal law.

Utah Rep. Gage Froerer, a Republican from Huntsville who sponsored the new state law, said families are willing to take that risk to treat their children with the oil.

"They know very well that this may not protect them from the DEA if the federal prosecutors stepped in," Froerer told his colleagues earlier this month.

To gain support in conservative Utah, the push for the legislation focused on helping children suffering from a severe form of epilepsy and the law itself is tempered with restrictions.

The law takes effect on July 1 and expires in 2016. It's restricted to those with severe epilepsy for whom the regular treatments are not effective, and requires a neurologist's consent to obtain and use the extract.

The extract comes from a strain of marijuana called Charlotte's Web, named after the first child treated with it. The plant is low in THC, the hallucinogenic chemical in marijuana, and high in CBD, a chemical that may fight seizures.

Doctors and others have warned that there's no proof yet that the extract is effective at treating epilepsy or even safe, but for parents like Jennifer May of Pleasant Grove, the hope that he oil will give their kids a better quality of life is worth pursuing.

"It helps more than our kids. It will hopefully help other states," said May, whose 11-year-old son can suffer hundreds of seizures a day. "It will hopefully push things a little more on a federal level if they see that even the most conservative states want something done."

A similar medical cannabis oil bill was passed recently by the Alabama Legislature and awaits the governor's signature.

On Friday, an Arizona judge ruled that state's medical marijuana law allows patients to consume marijuana-extracts, something state and local officials had determined said were not permitted. The case was prompted by a 5-year-old boy with debilitating seizures.

Some legal experts say states authorizing certain strains of marijuana medicine may be unlikely to produce any relief for patients.

Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who helped craft Colorado's marijuana regulations, said that laws like Utah's are "mostly symbolic."

An August memo from the U.S. Department of Justice told marijuana states that in order for federal authorities to look the other way, states must take steps to prevent diversion to other states where marijuana is not legal.

"There's no provision in law that would let a licensed Colorado business sell any marijuana-derived product out of state," Kamin said. "They could sell an ounce to someone who shows up here, then that person could take it home at their own risk. But they couldn't ship it."

Joel Stanley and his brothers grow the plant in the mountains west of Colorado Springs and have a waitlist of about 2,000 for the marijuana product.

Stanley said families on his waiting list now have to meet Colorado residency requirements, such as establishing an address and becoming a registered patient, in order to obtain the product under that state's medical marijuana laws.

With the new Utah law, families will still need to go through those hoops to get the product, but they'll be allowed to possess it in both states, Stanley said.

"From a federal government standpoint, the fact that it crosses state lines doesn't really make it any more illegal," he said. "It's just illegal period."

Stanley's group is working to produce the extract as a hemp product later this fall, which he said makes it no more illegal than products such as hemp oil and hemp milk sold at stores around the country.

"A patient can either drive in and pick it up and drive it across without going through any of the Colorado residency issues, or we'll be able to mail it to those patients," he said.

However, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, dismissed the theory that some strains of this drug are so low in THC that they would grow it as industrial hemp and not pot.

"Whether you can derive CBD oil from hemp, nobody has any idea," Armentano said, arguing that parents of sick children in cannabinoid oil states will be disappointed. "The proposed solution to their plight is not a solution at all."

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Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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