SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's first medical marijuana dispensary opened Monday as the state began a slow rollout of a program that will allow residents with certain health conditions to use pot for medicinal purposes.
The online application process for people to get medical marijuana cards started on Sunday.
To get cards, people must first receive a recommendation from one of 60 approved health professionals, said Rich Oborn, director of the state’s Center for Medical Cannabis. The group includes doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants who received training to approve patient cards
The first dispensary, Dragonfly Wellness, opened in an old bank building in Salt Lake City, using the original bank vaults and structure, the Deseret News reported.
“We’ve got a number of different community advocates that have been fighting for patient rights and fighting for our community so that way people have a safer alternative to medicine," said Narith Panh, the company's chief strategy officer. “This is for them today, too.”.
A second dispensary is expected to open in March and seven more by June. The final five dispensaries, which will be called pharmacies, will open after July, Oborn said.
Patients with qualifying conditions have been able to use marijuana with a doctor's letter since December 2018, but they had to go to other states to get it. Those letters are valid through the end of 2020, but they don't allow patients to buy medical marijuana products in Utah.
People seeking medical marijuana cards are most likely to cite having chronic pain condition, defined as pain that lasts longer than two weeks, Oborn said.
Utah became the 33rd state to legalize medical marijuana after voters passed a ballot initiative in November 2018 that legalized doctor-approved marijuana treatment for certain health conditions including cancer, chronic pain and epilepsy.
State lawmakers then replaced the measure with a law they said puts tighter controls on the production, distribution and use of the drug. It was part of a compromise involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose positions carry out-sized sway in its home state.
The faith, widely known as the Mormon church, had long frowned upon medical marijuana use because of a key church health code called the “Word of Wisdom,” which prohibits coffee as well as alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. Leaders also worried that allowing medical marijuana could lead to broader use in Utah.
But as opinion polls indicated that majority of the state's voters would approve the 2018 medical-legalization measure, leaders publicly came out in support of patients using the drug if prescribed by a doctor, saying it can alleviate pain and suffering.
Some advocates said the compromise was too restrictive, and this year lawmakers addressed some of their concerns by removing a requirement that the drug be packaged in a blister pack, taking off caps on the number of patients doctors can treat and allowing patients to seek expungement of past convictions.