The facts on Utah’s medical marijuana program

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UTAH (ABC4) – April 20, or as it’s written in shorthand, 4/20, is a particularly busy day for medical marijuana pharmacies across the state.

Provo-based Deseret Wellness was slammed with customers on 4/20, a day renowned in counterculture by many who use marijuana, both with a medical need or otherwise. To mark the occasion, the pharmacy, which caters to those who have a medical cannabis card only, decorated the dispensary with green balloons and streamers.

After all, the location on Draper Lane serves the largest population of cannabis cardholders in the state. According to the most recent monthly report published by the Utah Department of Health Center for Medical Cannabis, Utah County has more cardholders than any other county in Utah by a considerable margin.

That may be surprising since Utah County, with cities such as Orem, Vineyard, Pleasant Grove, and Provo, is considered to be a historically conservative hotbed in the Beehive State.

How does that happen? The employees at Deseret Wellness have no clue.

“That is something we’ve been trying to figure out around the pharmacy here to just kind of talking amongst ourselves, we’re not sure,” says Maren Costello, a Deseret Wellness pharmacy technician. “But we like it a lot and we’re trying to reach all of those patients.”

Where are the marijuana users in Utah?

According to the Utah Department of Health Center for Medical Cannabis report, there are currently 23,089 active patient cardholders with access to medical marijuana in the state. What jumps off the page is the county-by-bounty breakdown, with Utah County listed with 10,105 cardholders, or 43.7% of all patients in the state. Salt Lake County trails by a significant amount with only 6,321 cardholders, making up 27.5% of Utah’s patient population.

That doesn’t mean, however, that more people in Utah County are consuming marijuana than in Salt Lake County. It could mean that more folks south of the point of the mountain are choosing to go through the process of obtaining legal clearance than the people in Salt Lake County.

That’s the Department of Health’s best guess, at least.

“It could just be that individuals in Utah County are just choosing more often to get registered with the program, and they want to protect themselves legally, it’s just possible that those in Salt Lake County, that that is not as much of a concern for them,” says Rich Oborn, the Department of Health’s director for the Center of Medical Cannabis.

The most recent statewide research for marijuana use, regardless of its obtainment, was conducted in 2019 and determined that adults in Summit County and Salt Lake County had the highest rates of 30-day use in the state. Utah County, at a rate of 2.6%, was well below the state average of 6.1% who reported current use of marijuana. Still, Utah County is the leader in terms of patients with medical cannabis cards.

According to Oborn, getting a medical cannabis card has been made easier than ever for people with qualifying conditions to obtain. The program is still relatively new, having launched in March 2020, and continues to evolve. Options such as electronic payment and home delivery have been instrumental in providing marijuana treatment around the state. Oborn cautions that cannabis doesn’t work for everyone, but for those qualifying individuals that it can help, the state wants to make it as easy as possible to get a safe product.

“I know some people unfortunately for years relied on the black market, and it’s not safe. And they always run the risk of purchasing a product that could harm them more than hurt them,” Oborn tells ABC4. “That’s a major concern that we have at the Department of Health. So, we are looking forward to patients in rural Utah and other areas in Utah having better access, and that way they can just make it more likely to participate in the legal market and purchase products that have been tested for contaminants.”

How to get medical cannabis in Utah

Getting a medical cannabis card in Utah is a relatively simple process. Prospective patients must have a qualifying medical condition. These include but are not limited to chronic pain, cancer, autism, or Alzheimer’s. Then, a patient must meet with a licensed medical provider who is registered in the state’s cannabis program and pay the $15 state application fee. Finding a provider has gotten much easier as well, as the state now boasts over 600 licensed providers in the program.

To increase the availability of medical marijuana, and to encourage patients to use a licensed dispensary rather than looking for weed on the streets, Oborn says that six more pharmacies are slated to open in the next month at locations around the state.

Benefits of using Utah’s medical cannabis program

For those with the qualifying conditions, getting to a nearby pharmacy and not having to drive out of state or buy drugs on the street, both of which are illegal, is going to be an important resource in the future. Oborn says safety and service are top priorities for the program.

“There’s specific testing that the products that go through the Utah program have to go through. You also get the advantage of consulting with a licensed pharmacist and a provider who can give you counseling, as you would get at a regular retail pharmacy,” Oborn says. “These are experts about the products. They can share information with you about dosing, about how much you should take, and how to properly use a vaping device and things to keep in mind and monitor as you use medical cannabis as your medicine. That is something that you don’t get on the black market.”

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