Since passage of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act in December 2018, some patients have inquired about medical cannabis, also called medical marijuana. At University of Utah Health, our focus is the health and well-being of our patients. With that in mind, we have developed guidelines and answers to frequently asked questions about medical cannabis. As always, U of U Health remains committed to providing the best quality health care and being a trusted source of expert information.

See the Utah Department of Health's Utah Medical Cannabis Program website to learn more including how to obtain a medical cannabis card. Patients may not purchase product from a medical cannabis pharmacy in Utah unless they have

  • A medical cannabis card issued by the Utah Department of Health, or
  • A recommendation letter from a Utah-licensed medical doctor (MD), osteopathic physician (DO), advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), or physician assistant (PA). By law, U of U Health pharmacies cannot dispense cannabis products. 

Individualized Assessment

Under Utah law, U of U Health MDs, DOs, APRNs, and PAs may issue recommendation letters for medical cannabis on a case-by-case basis to patients who are evaluated and diagnosed with a qualifying condition. A provider must also determine that the patient could benefit from treatment with medical cannabis.

When assessing whether or not to give a recommendation for medical cannibis, our providers are sympathetic to the difficult symptoms and medically complex issues that some patients face. Our providers will share what they know and also what they don’t yet know about medical cannabis (see FAQs below). Ultimately, their decision will depend on many factors that require a comprehensive understanding of each patient’s overall health. For instance, providers must take into consideration possible interactions between medical cannabis and other medications, and whether other viable treatments exist.

Our providers are not obligated to provide recommendations by law or University of Utah Policy. At U of U Health, the choice of whether to register as a qualified medical provider and issue recommendations to their patients is left to each individual provider. A list of registered qualified medical providers who have authorized the Utah Department of Health to post their information can be found on their website

Please know that in all circumstances, our providers remain committed to working with patients to find solutions and to offer the best care possible.

Cannabis is a Controlled Substance

We want to remind patients that cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Even though Utah law states that individuals with a recommendation letter or a medical cannabis card issued by the Utah Department of Health may legally possess cannabis in medical dosage form, they will be expected to continue to follow workplace, school, and other policies and laws that regulate cannabis possession and use. For instance, patients that use medical cannabis will need to abide by any relevant state laws governing operating motor vehicles.

Further, a recommendation letter from a provider or a medical cannabis card does not exempt patients from their employer’s job safety requirements. Many employers will likely prohibit employees from driving or operating heavy machinery while under the influence of medical cannabis.

What Is Medical Cannabis?

Medical cannabis, also called medical marijuana, is use of the cannabis plant to treat a disease or condition. Medicinal properties of the cannabis plant mainly come from two chemical compounds: delta-9-tetrahydrocannainol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the main psychoactive component in cannabis that gives users a “high,” it also stimulates appetite and reduces nausea. CBD is not psychoactive, has been shown to control seizures in some patients, and may have additional medicinal properties.

Is it FDA Approved?

Cannabis for medical use is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because there is not sufficient evidence that the cannabis plant has health benefits. Rigorous, large-scale clinical trials still need to be carried out to evaluate benefits for each of dozens of specific medical conditions. Studies must also determine whether benefits outweigh known health risks.

Even though medical cannabis is not FDA approved, certain purified cannabis extracts and derivatives are. FDA approved medications include a CBD-based liquid medication called Epidiolex® and three drugs made with synthetic forms of THC and THC-like compounds, Dronabinol (Marinol® and Syndros®) and Nabilone (Cesamet®).

Is Medical Cannabis Safe?

A number of studies show that cannabis can be harmful to our physical and mental health and can pose safety concerns. Medical cannabis can:

  • Interfere with short-term memory and concentration;
  • alter judgment and decision-making;
  • reduce reaction time, impair coordination, and cause drowsiness.
  • Cause addiction, also known as cannabis use disorder.
  • Using cannabis during adolescence may alter brain development and have long-lasting consequences that affect attention, memory, and the ability to make sound decisions.
  • Cannabis use during pregnancy and breastfeeding may create health risks to the fetus and newborn.
  • When using CBD, individuals may not respond as well to other anti-seizure medications.
  • Lack of consistent quality control means that there could be other ingredients in some medical cannabis products that cause harm.

What Do We Still Need to Learn?

Careful evaluation of the health effects of cannabis is warranted for several reasons.

  • Cannabis activates the body’s own endocannabinoid system, which is present in the brain and nervous system. Endocannabinoids control mood, memory, appetite, and pain. We still don’t understand how activating this system effects a person’s health over time.
  • Cannabis use and the number of people with marijuana (cannabis) use disorders has risen over the past decade. It remains to be determined how factors such as the age when a person starts using cannabis, frequency of use, and amount used over time, affect a person’s risk for developing marijuana use disorder and other negative consequences such as cognitive impairment.
  • Cannabis is stronger than it was three decades ago because cannabis plants today have higher concentrations of the psychoactive compound, THC. Scientists are still researching the physiological impacts of high-potency cannabis.
  • The precise amount of THC (dosing) that provides medicinal benefits without causing harm remains to be determined.

Research at U of U

The U of U has a strong track record of carrying out high-quality research investigating the health effects of cannabis and its derivatives so that scientists and physicians can develop sound medical decisions. Studies include:

  • Basic science research to understand how CBD use for treating seizures affects the central nervous system and how it interacts with other drugs.
  • Clinical trials investigating the effectiveness of CBD (Epidiolex®) for treating severe forms of epilepsy in children.
  • Imaging studies to determine the impacts of cannabis use on the brain during adolescence.
  • Analysis of health records and published literature to determine risks and benefits of using cannabis and its derivatives.

All research involving people or animals are subject to rigorous guidelines and oversight by the Institutional Review Board or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

NIH Grant Awarded Oct, 2019

Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, PhD, is one of nine researchers to be awarded a grant by the National Institutes of Health to explore the effects of cannabinoids in pain management.