SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A panel of Utah lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a proposal that would allow residents of the conservative state who have chronic and debilitating diseases to consume edible medical marijuana products.
The legislation forbids the smoking of marijuana, but allows businesses to grow marijuana and sell pot-infused products such as brownies, candy and lozenges.
A Senate committee voted 3-2 to approve the bill and send it to the full Senate after a nearly two-hour debate about the legal and moral dangers of allowing a medical marijuana program in the heavily Mormon state.
Woods Cross Republican Sen. Todd Weiler said he recently traveled to Nevada, where a medical marijuana law has passed and he saw a billboard with a giant pot leaf on it.
"It said, 'Call Dr. Weed' and a phone number. Is that what we're bringing to Utah?" he said before casting one of the two dissenting votes.
Saratoga Springs Republican Sen. Mark Madsen, who sponsored the bill, said if the state can push past years of propaganda and misunderstanding surrounding the drug, it would bring compassion and freedom to those who are suffering. He also said medical pot has become a states' right issue to push back against federal overreach.
Madsen has said he began researching the issue after having back pain for years. When his doctor recently recommended a marijuana treatment, Madsen traveled to Colorado to try it through cannabis-infused gummy bears and an electronic-cigarette device.
He said he found the treatment effective. If his doctor agrees it would let him use fewer or no prescription painkillers, he'd consider taking a cannabis product again.
"This bill introduces a very small element of highly regulated freedom to willing patients and willing doctors," Madsen said.
The bill passed its first test in the Utah Legislature at a time when a growing number of states are allowing the drug. Alaska and the District of Columbia became the latest places to legalize the drug this week after several states in recent years adopted medical marijuana.
Thursday's hearing included testimony from law enforcement and several people suffering from cancer and other diseases.
Christine Stenquist of Kaysville told lawmakers she has been living with a brain tumor and fibromyalgia for 20 years. Three years ago, she began using marijuana and said she is no longer housebound, doesn't need a cane, and can volunteer and be a mother to her children again.
"At 42 years old, I finally have a life — the life I had to give up on," Stenquist said.
Matt Fairbanks, a Utah-based special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, spoke against the bill, telling lawmakers he has seen large crops of illegal pot grown on Utah mountainsides, leaving the environment destroyed from pesticides and erosions.
"The deforestation has left marijuana growths with even rabbits that have cultivated a taste for the marijuana," Fairbanks said.
Madsen said his proposal would only allow for indoor growing operations, with seed-to-sale tracking, testing and regulation.
Patients would be issued medical marijuana cards that would serve as their prescription and as a debit card to process their payments for the drug. The proposal specifies which conditions are eligible, such as AIDS, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Madsen said he is confident his bill will pass the GOP-controlled state Senate, and he's reasonably optimistic about its chances in the Republican-dominated House.
The House speaker and Utah's Republican governor have said they fear a medical marijuana law would lead to legalized recreational pot or broad use through suspect prescriptions.
At his monthly news conference on Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said medical marijuana needs science behind it, "and it has to have dispensing where real doctors, not just Dr. Feelgood, is dispensing the medication in a controlled way."
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.
Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice