Saturday, 16 May 2015

Why I Don't Have High Hopes For Medical Marijuana In Utah

posted on 5/16/2015 by the Salt City Sinner

I'm going to do the full disclosure thing right out of the gate: I'm a proponent of legalizing drugs.

Not just “decriminalizing” “soft” drugs like marijuana – I mean that I favor completely legal heroin, methamphetamine, PCP, the whole shebang. I favor ending prohibition and regulation for both philosophical and practical reasons. On the philosophical side, I believe that people have the right to make informed decisions about the destiny of their own bodies, even if I might personally disagree with some of their choices. This is actually a fairly popular position when it comes to things like alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and, yes, marijuana – once you venture outside of the average person's comfort zone by mentioning meth, cocaine, or heroin, support for fully ending drug prohibition erodes, but the “social harm” argument against full legalization is so applicable to things like alcohol and tobacco (not to mention trans fats or processed sugar) that I think most people's caveats are incoherent and come from a “gut” understanding of what drugs should or should not be legal. As opponents of LGBTQ rights amply demonstrate on a daily basis, the gut is a stupid and awful place to dictate public policy from.

From a practical standpoint, the argument for full legalization is simple: prohibition doesn't work, and in fact causes widespread and terrible harm. It didn't work when alcohol was prohibited (alcohol consumption rose to record levels during prohibition, actually), it isn't working now, and it never will work. The track record of the 'War on Drugs' that was started by Richard Nixon in 1971 is one of mass incarceration, police abuse, belligerent (and failed) foreign policy (especially in Central and South America), and absolutely ludicrous fear mongering.

When it comes to the devil's weed, some progress has been made in the last two decades, with 23 states and the District of Columbia now allowing the medical use of marijuana, and four states have fully succumbed to reefer madness by legalizing recreational use.

For the record, I have mixed feelings about legalizing weed for medical use only.

On the one hand, there are some serious medical benefits that marijuana can provide, and people should be free to seek the best medical treatments available to them, without scientifically invalid and moralistic restrictions placed on them by the State (this is more than my opinion – it is, and I'm being serious here, my Sincerely Held Religious Belief ™). On the other hand, legalization for medical purposes only strikes me as both sneaky and a half-measure.

There's a lot of buzz in the drug law reform community here in Utah regarding Governor Gary Herbert's recent statements regarding medical marijuana. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported:
Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he would be open to legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, provided the science shows it can benefit patients and tight regulations can be put in place to control distribution. 
"I'm open to the idea of medical marijuana," the governor said, "and the discussion of how it can be used as a medicine based on science, and making sure we have good, collaborative efforts so we can answer the questions that are out there." 
That appears to be a change from his position during the recent legislative session, when he expressed concerns about a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, that would have created a state-licensed system of medical marijuana growing facilities and dispensaries where patients could buy the drug with a doctor's recommendation. 
At the time, Herbert said the bill could lead to a "slippery slope" toward legal, recreational use. 
Madsen's bill failed in the Senate by a single vote, although the lawmaker has said he will reintroduce it next year. 

 I will not argue for a single second that this isn't progress – it is. And Utah has already legalized the use of cannabidiol (for the treatment of severe epileptic disorders) through HB 105. AND, as the above Trib article notes, Senator Mark Madsen's bill regarding medical marijuana only failed by a single vote.

All of that aside, I suspect that optimism regarding the future of medical pot in Utah may be misplaced based on the debacle surrounding Governor Herbert's Healthy Utah initiative.

Healthy Utah, you may remember, was a compromise proposed by Herbert regarding the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion. Last year's health care policy debate – which ended in the scuttling of Healthy Utah by ultra-conservative Republicans in the state legislature – shares some telling characteristics with the debate regarding medical pot. Healthy Utah was backed by the medical community, as is medical marijuana. Healthy Utah was Gary Herbert's baby, and now Herbert is apparently backing prescription cannabis. Healthy Utah was also supported by a majority of Utahans, but on the issue of medical weed, a majority of Utahns actually oppose Senator Madsen's plan.

What is strangling my optimism regarding changes to laws regarding marijuana in Utah is more than just my innate, bone-deep cynicism: it's the fact that, with every passing year, an increasing number of issues that should be decided by science or medicine, ranging from health care to reproductive health to education to climate change and on and on, are now culture war issues – and in Utah, being on the side of the culture war that stands athwart history yelling “oh my heck, hold on there speed racer!” trumps science every single time.

Is my skepticism regarding medical weed in Utah misplace? I hope so with every fiber of my being. The near-passage of Madsen's pot bill is certainly encouraging. But Governor Herbert, as the fate of his Healthy Utah initiative indicates, has cartoon moths fluttering out of the wallet that used to hold his political capital. His public statement in support of sensible marijuana reform may actually help ultra-conservatives to marshal opposition and once again get culture warriors lathered up into a frenzy. We'll see.

For now, let's just be happy that the Colorado border is a mere three and a half hour drive away.

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