Since passage of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act this past December, 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. Until the state infrastructure to support this law is fully in place in March 2020, we have developed interim guidance and answers to frequently asked questions about medical marijuana. As always, U of U Health remains committed to providing the best quality health care and being a trusted source of expert information.

This webpage will be updated with new information as it becomes available.

Individualized Assessment

Under Utah law, U of U Health providers may issue recommendation letters for medical marijuana on a case-by-case basis to patients who are evaluated, diagnosed with a qualifying condition, and when a provider determines that the patient could benefit from treatment with medical cannabis.

When assessing whether or not to give a recommendation, 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 marijuana (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 marijuana and other medications, and whether other viable treatments exist.

Our providers are not obligated to provide recommendation letters by law or University of Utah Policy. In addition, Utah law states that recommendations for patients under age 21 must be reviewed by the state Compassionate Use Board, which will not be formed until March 2020. Our providers will not be issuing recommendations for patients in this age group until that date, except in rare cases.

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

Marijuana is a Controlled Substance

We want to remind patients that marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Even though Utah law states that patients with a recommendation letter may legally possess marijuana in medical dosage form, they will be expected to continue to follow workplace, school, and other policies and laws that regulate marijuana possession and use. For instance, patients that use medical marijuana will need to abide by Utah’s “zero tolerance” law that prohibits driving with any measurable amount of marijuana in the body.

Further, a recommendation letter 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 marijuana.

What Is Medical Marijuana?

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 marijuana 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?

Marijuana 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 marijuana 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 Marijuana Safe?

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

  • Interfere with short-term memory and concentration;
  • alter judgment and decision-making;
  • reduce reaction time, impair coordination, and cause drowsiness. For these reasons, medical marijuana should not be used at work or used while driving or operating heavy machinery.
  • Lead to anxiety, psychiatric disorders, and worsened mood.
  • Cause addiction, also known as cannabis use disorder.
  • Using marijuana during adolescence may alter brain development and have long-lasting consequences that affect attention, memory, and the ability to make sound decisions.
  • Cannabis use is not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding because of possible 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 marijuana products that cause harm.

What Do We Still Need to Learn?

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

  • Marijuana 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.
  • Marijuana 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 marijuana, 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.
  • Marijuana 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 the 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 marijuana 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.