Officials are pleasantly surprised at the success of Utah’s medical cannabis program

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

Just six months ago, medical cannabis patients in Utah were granted the privilege of buying plant-derived medicines for the first time. Although the industry is not yet fully mature, the program has already managed to exceed patient enrollment projections. 

Prior to its launch in March, Utah’s Medical Cannabis Act underwent numerous changes. Since those rules were finalized, 10,000 medical cannabis patients have applied for and received cards to obtain medical cannabis in the state. According to director of the Center for Medical Cannabis, Richard Born, the program was not expected to achieve such impressive rates of popularity until one year in.

“These are people that are suffering from qualifying illnesses such as chronic pain and cancer, epilepsy, MS, terminal illnesses. So that’s exciting to see that there’s more people that are not having to take their medication in the shadows anymore,” said Oborn, who noted that Utah’s medical cannabis program is steering consumers away from illegal avenues.

A ballot initiative was approved by Utah voters in November 2018. The initiative’s passing led to the legalization of doctor-prescribed treatments for a wide range of health conditions. During the following month, the measure was replaced by state lawmakers with a more restrictive version.

Program for medical cannabis in Utah has encountered hiccups

In the early days of Utah’s medical cannabis program going into effect, technical problems meant that patients struggled to sign-up using the online patient portal. Thankfully, Oborn says that the problems have since been rectified. As a result of this, people in Utah are arranging medical cannabis-related consultations with doctors and pharmacists “more than they ever have.”

At the current time, Utah County has issued around 3,600 patient cards Salt Lake County has approximately 2,400 patients, Weber County has awarded 854 medical cannabis cards, and Davis County has 787 patient cardholders. 

“It’s been going. It’s been going well, as with all new programs and people starting and really pushing to get up and going like they did early on and now producers are starting to find their traction to be able to keep moving forward,” said manager of the Utah Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp and Medical Cannabis Program, Cody James. “I don’t think that anybody had an idea as to the number of patients that Utah was going to see this early. I think we’re exceeding all of the studies that we had on the number of patients.”

On the downside, supply shortages have occurred as a result of strong demand. These issues are expected to be resolved as the market matures and the supply chain grows. 

An overview of Utah’s medical cannabis program 

Qualifying patients can purchase their cannabis-based medicines in the form of capsules, concentrated oils, gelatinous cubes, sublingual products, transdermal preparations, topical solutions and unprocessed flower. Registered patients are limited to possessing 113 grams of medical cannabis product in Utah at any given time.

Currently, approximately 460 healthcare specialists and doctors have registered to provide these medical cannabis products under Utah’s program. However, nine counties are still awaiting confirmation for medical cannabis providers; medical providers must have registered with the Utah Department of Health in order to recommend cannabis as a treatment.

By 2021, letters can no longer be used to recommend the plant in its medicinal form. Next year, patients must arrange consultations with and obtain a diagnosis from healthcare providers.

“We believe there’s a high number of [registered] patients that have not yet converted to a medical cannabis card, that they are continuing until the end of the year to rely on just their letter,” Oborn explained. 

Online accounts must be created by anyone who wishes to legally obtain medical cannabis in Utah. Applications can be submitted via the online portal and once approved, patients are required to pay $15 to officially access and activate their card. Renewal fees must also be paid $5 for 90-day renewals and $15 for six-month renewals.

Patients who require medical cannabis in Utah must first be diagnosed with one of the qualifying conditions listed under the program’s criteria, such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, cancer, cachexia, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, HIV, persistent nausea, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness with less than six months of life expectancy. 

The Compassionate Use Board also welcomes petitioning applications from those who are not diagnosed with one of the aforementioned conditions. So far, approximately 220 minors below the age of 21 have successfully obtained medical cannabis cards in Utah by means of a petition.