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Cannabis Confusion: Getting Treatment Without Getting In Trouble

Renee Bright / KUER

It’s 3 a.m. and Corey Ellis can’t sleep. He’s supposed to be on the road in a few hours, but the chronic pain in his hands and feet are bothering him. On this night, there’s another thing keeping him awake: anxiety.

“Even though I’ve made this trip a lot of times, there is the potential for a lot of things to go wrong,” he said.

The 39-year-old combat veteran from Clearfield is about to head to a marijuana dispensary in Dinosaur, Colo. to stock up on a month’s worth of medical cannabis. It’s a four-hour drive just across the state border near Vernal. The dispensary he’s visiting in Dinosaur isn’t his favorite — that one is in Palisade, Colo., about six hours away — but Dinosaur is the closest option he has, at least for now.

Photo of Corey Ellis.
Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER
Corey Ellis describes some medical cannabis products. The 39-year-old combat veteran uses the drug to treat his chronic pain and PTSD.

Utah’s new medical marijuana system won’t be up and running until next year. Until then, it’s technically legal to have medical cannabis in Utah as long patients follow a strict set of rules. But there’s some confusion over what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Ellis has a letter from his doctor recommending cannabis treatment for his pain, but his trip to Colorado is still risky. He could be cited for marijuana possession or for bringing the drug across state lines.

But his trip goes off without a hitch, and he’s back in Utah the next day.

Once home, Ellis shows off his haul. Oils, tinctures and vape pen cartridges tumble out of a paper bag as he explains how each one eases his pain and anxiety or helps him sleep.

The supply will last about a month and cost Ellis $420.

Cannabis is medicine, he says. He picks up a small bottle with a dripper: a cannabis tincture.

“You put it under your tongue,” he said, which he demonstrates by releasing a few drops. “Then that stays there for 15 seconds, then you swallow it. This is more CBD and less THC. The dosage is on the back. That’s where that H.B. 3001 stuff comes in.”

Photo of Corey Ellis.
Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER
Corey Ellis demonstrates taking a medical cannabis tincture at his Clearfield home. The day before, Ellis purchased the tincture and other cannabis products at a Colorado dispensary to help treat his pain and PTSD.

H.B. 3001 is the Utah Medical Cannabis Act. Last year, Utah voters approved a broader medical marijuana law. But less than a month later, the Legislature replaced that with HB 3001.

Both versions included a period where patients can use cannabis as long as they have a doctor’s note and are using approved forms. But there have been some hiccups.

“A lot of patients smoked cannabis because it’s quick and it’s cheap,” said Desiree Hennessy. She’s executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition, which got medical marijuana on the ballot.

Smoking cannabis is illegal under Utah’s law, but Hennessy says some patients are still doing that, and getting charged for it.

Her advice: “Don’t keep the old stuff. Get rid of it and just don’t have it around where you could get charged.”

Another issue, Hennessy said, is that not all law enforcement agencies are dealing with the new law in the same way. Some are more lenient than others.

“We definitely have officers that are saying, ‘This isn’t the law. The law doesn’t go into effect until the state can offer cannabis,’” she said.

That’s similar to how the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office is handling people suspected of marijuana possession. Chief Deputy Dale Ward said the office hasn’t changed its policy for marijuana possession much since the drug was legalized for medical use.

People should only be able to legally possess marijuana “if they have a legitimate medical card from Utah — which I don’t think (the state is) issuing them yet. Until that happens, it’s business as usual,” he said.

But Ward added that his county is willing to work with people who say they have marijuana for medical reasons.

“We will err on the side of caution to give the offender — if you want to call them that — the benefit of the doubt and refer it to the county attorney’s office for a legal decision,” he said.

Credit Renee Bright / KUER

Meanwhile, some agencies have become much more lenient since the Utah Medical Cannabis Act passed. Many, including Salt Lake City, Unified and St. George police departments, say they’re following following guidance from the Utah Highway Patrol, which directs its troopers not to detain or cite people who are attempting to follow the law.

“If (someone suspected of marijuana possession has) that doctor’s recommendation, we’re pretty much, at that point, going to step back and there won’t be any further investigation,” said Salt Lake City police Detective Greg Wilking.

But Corey Ellis, the medical cannabis patient, isn’t taking any chances. As a former Air Force police officer,he says he understands a police officer’s mindset.

“Being a cop, I have a pretty good insight (into) what these guys are doing and what they’re looking for,” he said. “But I don’t know if everything I have is right, if it meets that law.”

Instead of avoiding police, he’s seeking them out to talk about cannabis. At first, it was because he wanted to make sure he was compliant with the law. But if they’re curious, Ellis will show police his marijuana.

“Literally, I placed my weed on the Centerville police chief’s desk. He took a picture of it on his desk as evidence with my letter of recommendation and I really thought I was going to jail that day,” he said, laughing. “Turns out the chief is an awesome, awesome man.”

Ellis has met with nearly a dozen police agencies and says some are much more open than others to seeing or even talking about his cannabis.

He’s careful to only have approved products — oils, vape pens and limited forms of edibles. But he worries he could get in trouble for having products that don’t meet Utah’s dosing standards or that don’t have dosage printed on the packaging at all.

“I’ve determined that I can’t meet that law. I try to meet the spirit and intent,” he said. “But as written, I cannot meet it.”

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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