Medical Cannabis Continues to Be a Regulatory Problem for States


More than three dozen states and the District of Columbia now make some provision for medical cannabis. Just a small handful of states have completely decriminalized marijuana, obviating the need for medical cannabis cards and dispensaries. But in most other states, regulating the nascent industry continues to be a problem.

Utah legalized medical marijuana despite a heavily conservative population. Its medical cannabis program was rolled out in 2020. To the dismay of patients, things have not gone as smoothly as many had hoped. There are a range of problems state lawmakers still have to work on – particularly those that directly affect access.

Medical Cannabis Cards Are Required

Medical cannabis was accessible in Utah with a letter of recommendation from a doctor through the end of 2020. Though the state included the requirement for a medical cannabis card in its legislation, they initially allowed for letters of recommendation in order to give enough time to get the card program up and running. But letters are no longer acceptable.

The owners of Deseret Wellness in Park City, Utah say their dispensary can now only admit patients with a valid medical cannabis card issued by the state. The problem for many patients is finding a qualified medical professional (QMP) willing to help them obtain their cards. The more rural the patient, the harder the task.

In addition, the number of Utah medical providers approved to prescribe medical marijuana represents a small minority. And even among those that have undergone certification, a fair number still aren’t actually helping patients obtain their cards.

Limited Dispensary Locations

Another challenge for patients is limited access to dispensaries. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the state approved licenses for fourteen dispensaries in 2020. To date, only seven have opened. Lawmakers initially allowed patients in rural areas to travel across state lines to purchase their medications. But like the letters of recommendation, the allowance to cross state lines expired at the end of 2020.

The problem here is that much of Utah is rural. The southernmost dispensary in the state is in Provo. It is also operated by Deseret Wellness. Patients who live in the most rural areas of southern Utah now either have to drive to Provo or do without their medication.

Fortunately, at least one dispensary has started home delivery. Right now, their services are limited to urban areas and the surrounding suburbs. But the dispensary hopes to have home delivery available statewide later in 2021. Hopefully other dispensaries will follow suit.

Not As Easy As It Sounds

The point of all of this is to say that allowing for medical cannabis within state borders is not as easy as it sounds. Lawmakers in every state have to balance the needs of their residents against Washington’s continued restriction of marijuana as a Schedule I substance.

Utah has discovered that regulating medical cannabis is not so easy. Dispensaries are not opening fast enough. Growers are not producing enough product. Prices are high and access is limited. The state legislature hopes to eventually find that sweet spot that allows patients to get the medications they need at reasonable prices. But for now, things are still challenging.

It is the same thing in most other states. Does that mean Washington must take the step of decriminalizing marijuana? That is up for debate. They might be able to offer the states some much needed relief simply by rescheduling the drug. At any rate, most of the states are still trying to figure it all out. If nothing else, medical marijuana continues to be problematic from a regulatory standpoint.