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Utah Business

With changes to state and federal legislation, medical cannabis has finally made its way to Utah. Here's what that means for patients throughout the state.

Medical Marijuana Comes To Utah

Making hard medical decisions is scary. Choosing between different providers, treatments, and insurance plans can leave already sick patients feeling even worse off. Add things like harsh side effects associated with prescription medications, or life-changing diagnosis’ and it’s enough to make any patient desperate to feel normal. 

Chad Thornley can relate. Two years ago, his four-year-old daughter Penelope was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer. Upon the diagnosis, Mr. Thornley and his wife went to countless doctor’s appointments, all filled with overwhelming talks of radiation and chemotherapy―the “standard procedures” for treating childhood cancers. 

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Radiation therapy is a grueling process, so the pair looked for ways they could alleviate her discomfort. That’s when they discovered medical cannabis―a way to curb some of the side effects associated with her therapy. There was just one problem: Mr. Thornley and his family were living in Utah at the time, and medical cannabis was completely illegal. 

Like other “marijuana refugees” faced with no other options and eager to help themselves or family members, Mr. Thornley made the gutwrenching decision to relocate his wife and daughter to Seattle, Washington for ten weeks while Penelope underwent daily sessions of Proton radiation therapy, assisted by medical cannabis. They liked the hospital in Seattle but they also went for the cannabis. 

During treatment, Mr. Thornley and his wife began introducing Penelope to daily doses of THC and CBD oils extracted from the cannabis plant. Mr. Thornley tells me that the oils (high in CBD, low in THC) helped treat migraines, nausea, and the general lack of appetite caused by radiation therapy. Medical cannabis was exactly what Penelope needed to feel as “normal” as possible during her treatment. 

If only Mr. Thornley didn’t have to displace his family during a time of crisis so his daughter could get what she needed. 

How To Get Cannabis In Utah

In December 2018, both CBD and THC cannabis products were legalized to some degree in Utah. While anyone can purchase and consume CBD (a non-psychoactive, federally legal, active cannabinoid found in cannabis plants) extracts and oils for a variety of health conditions, those interested in using products with THC (a psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis plants) for medical reasons must have a qualifying condition and a letter of recommendation from a trusted physician to avoid being slapped with a drug possession charge. Cannabis products with THC are still illegal in Utah for recreational use.

According to the Department of Health, though qualifying patients using THC products can legally carry their medication (with the aforementioned letter, of course) in Utah, patients won’t be able to legally purchase it until 2020―when the first dispensary is scheduled to open―leaving many at a loss as to what to do when it comes to acquiring products with THC for medical use. 

But there are other medical cannabis options available for patients in need. Though pure CBD oils do not contain more than 0.03 percent THC (the legal limit), they are said to be just as effective at providing relief from medical conditions to those in need without the psychoactive effects of THC. And they’re 100 percent legal to purchase and consume in Utah for all residents, with or without a qualifying condition. 

Though I have tried CBD oils for mental health problems such as anxiety, I wanted to know more about the state of the industry in Utah, so I turned to Dashiel Kulander and Britni King, cofounders of the Boojum Group, a cannabis (CBD) processing and consultation business in Heber, Utah for more information. 

Inspired by the industry’s outlook, Mr. Kulander and Ms. King relocated to Heber from Los Angeles, California to be close to their families while starting their own business. “There are a lot of people making money off of the [cannabis boom],” says Mr. Kulander. “I mean, if you take it down by weight, a finished CBD oil product that is ready for human consumption is worth about the same as gold.” 

However, despite the recent federal legalization of CBD, as well as the legalization of THC used medically in Utah, setting up shop in the small town of Heber wasn’t without its challenges. “We knew there was going to be push back [from certain people] in the state,” says Mr. Kulander while discussing the challenges of starting a cannabis-related business. “We thought it was going to happen at the city level, and it did happen at the city level.”

The Boojum Group had all of the necessary state licenses and permits needed to begin business operations but the city of Heber made things difficult. According to city officials, their leased business location was in a “commercial zone” and not to be used for any kind of industrial or manufacturing purposes, despite the fact that several of their neighbors had industrial licenses. Mr. Kulander and Ms. King also had to appear at a Board Of Adjustments hearing, despite being a completely legal business by the state’s standards.

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“It was pretty fishy,” says Mr. Kulander, “they tried calling the cops to see if [what we were doing was] even legal. They tried calling the Department of Agriculture. They tried everything.”

Thankfully, with help from the community, Mr. Kulander and Ms. King were able to get their license from Heber on February 21st, following the hearing. Giving them, at last, the final go-ahead they needed to start extracting their first batch of CBD oil from cannabis plants. 

“We’re really excited to get our brand out there,” says Ms. King, mentioning how important it is for the group to complete their “due diligence” when looking for the right, quality local manufacturers and cultivators to work with. “[We’re always going to] make sure it’s a really good product, and with our branding and marketing, [we’re also] going to be very upfront about where it’s coming from, our sourcing, our testing, and things like that.”

Regulating An Unregulated Industry

Ms. King wants to be able to answer truthfully when customers come and ask, “hey, where did you get your product from? Where do you manufacture?” And CBD users should be asking these things, because fake oils and extracts throughout the industry are a huge problem, especially in Utah. 

“[Part of the reason] CBD was legalized was because people were taking these CBD products that weren’t what they said they were and people were getting sick,” says Mr. Kulander.

And Mr. Kulander is right. From October of 2017 to January of 2018, 52 people in Utah were poisoned, and some hospitalized, after ingesting harmful chemicals found in fake CBD oil. Now, Utah requires third-party testing and registration of all cannabis products sold in the state. 

“Some of those [chemicals] come from the extraction process,” says Drew Rigby from the Department of Agriculture. “There could be pesticides that were used in growing [the cannabis] that stay through the extraction process. There could be heavy metals that were in the water or in the soil that grow into the plant. So, what we are trying to do is ensure that the product is safe for human consumption.”

I asked Mr. Kulander and Ms.King about this. To answer, they simply showed me a paper full of test results from a third party lab on their own CBD product. The tests confirmed what they already knew: their product is pure.

“We do get third-party testing on everything,” says Mr. Kulander. “Our motivation for that is because you have to be accountable. You have to have accountability. The industry has been the wild wild west for so long.”

The Therapeutic Benefits of Cannabis

Unquestionably, providing high-quality, safe CBD oils for patients in need is important to the Boojum Group. Both because the state requires it and it’s the right thing to do, but also because they are medical cannabis users themselves. 

“I’ve [been prescribed] medications for ADD and sleep latency and taking CBD has really allowed me to, not take that medication off the table completely, but really cut down on how much I’m using. It really does help a lot with that certain kind of focus,” says Mr. Kulander, also mentioning his struggle with epilepsy as a kid.

“I wish CBD would have been as prevalent back then,” says Mr. Kulander, recounting his experience with the condition. “I was put on a different medication called Tegretol for like seven to eight years, and this was a very serious neurological medication that kind of created this whole fog when I was going through some very developmental stages of my life.”

Both Mr. Kulander and Ms. King predict that CBD and other cannabis medications will give more patients greater control over crucial healthcare decisions, just as it did for them. “It’s going to put people back in control of their own health,” says Mr. Kulander. “I think, because it can provide an alternative approach to many medications, from things like simple pain relief all the way up to the FDA approved Epidiolex, a CBD-derived medication for epilepsy.” 

But that isn’t all, according to a report from the World Health Organization both CBD and THC extracts have shown to help those suffering from chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Chron’s disease, cancer and the side affects associated with treatment, among other medical conditions. 

 Of course, patients interested in using CBD in place of another prescription medication should talk to their doctor before making the switch. And currently, providers at Intermountain have the opportunity to recommend both THC and CBD medications and products to patients, should they find it appropriate. 

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“It’s pretty darn compelling when you talk to patients about this,” says Mark Briesacher, Intermountain’s chief physician executive. “For some of them, using CBD has made such [a difference.] And also, in speaking to patients, I have come to appreciate that they’re really good at figuring out what’s best for them.” 

Figuring out what’s best for them is exactly what Mr. Thornley did when he moved his wife and daughter across the country for their health. As for Penelope, Mr. Thornley is happy to report that his now six-year-old is currently cancer-free, taking doses of pure CBD as necessary to help with recurring migraines, inflammation, anxiety, and even bouts of nausea. And now, Mr. Thornley just wants others to have an open mind when it comes to medical cannabis. 

“I would definitely give [advice to other patients] to try it. I think there’s a lot of fear around cannabis in general. My advice would be to just not be so scared of it. It sounds like something that’s not likely to cause any problems if you’re carefully administering it and try to use it for the right reasons,” he says. “I’m excited to see it come around and be more available.”