Utah’s Medical Cannabis Program Off To A Healthy Start

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Nine months following the launch of legal medical cannabis sales in Utah, regulators and industry leaders are hailing the early success of the state’s program and looking forward to 2021 for continued growth. Voters in Utah approved the medical use of cannabis with the passage of a ballot initiative known as Proposition 2 in November 2018. 

But the measure soon came under attack by state legislators, who attempted to tighten restrictions on the law with a replacement bill that caused an uproar from medical cannabis advocates. A measure that was termed a compromise bill by lawmakers was passed in December 2018, although it saw legal challenges and multiple changes in subsequent legislative sessions.

Sales of medical cannabis products finally began at licensed dispensaries, or pharmacies as they are called in Utah, on March 2 of this year, and statewide sales already exceed $2 million monthly. The number of registered patients has risen quickly, surpassing 10,000 in September, six months sooner than regulators expected the tally to reach that milestone.

“It’s been going. It’s been going well, as with all new programs and people starting and really pushing to get up and going like they did early on — and now (producers) are starting to find their traction to be able to keep moving forward,” Cody James, manager of the Utah Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp and Medical Cannabis Program, said at the time.

“I don’t think that anybody had an idea as to the number of patients that Utah was going to see this early,” James added. “I think we’re exceeding all of the studies that we had on the number of patients.”

Utah Dispensaries Up and Running

Bijan Sakaki, founding partner of Beehives Own LLC, which operates the Beehive Farmacy medical cannabis dispensary in Salt Lake City, told High Times that the rollout of the medical cannabis program has surpassed his expectations, as well. He noted that the state’s dispensaries have had to contend with a pandemic as things got up and running.

Although it has been a challenge, the team at Beehive has taken advantage of its situation to help manage the outbreak. The dispensary, which is housed in a former bank, uses the building’s vault to store its merchandise. And the property’s auto drive-through lanes have been a perfect option to maintain COVID-19 protocols by taking advantage of a pneumatic tube transport system to ferry customers’ purchases to them as they wait safely in their cars.

“You can only have so many people on the floor at a time due to social distancing,” Sakaki explained. “So now that we have the lanes for drive-throughs, it allows patients that normally wouldn’t be able to come into a store because they either have mobility issues or have children in their car” to still shop. 

Utah’s cannabis regulations came with strict requirements for both patients and providers. Most notably, patients are not permitted to smoke cannabis under the state’s rules. Cannabis flower is available for purchase, but it must be vaped, not smoked, if consumed via inhalation. Infused chocolates and beverages are also not allowed. Alternatives such as tinctures, capsules, and topicals are popular options for patients because of these rules, Sakaki noted.

“While some people view limitations like that as a negative thing, I think it actually sparks innovation,” he said. “When you have limitations, you ask ‘what new products can I create that other people could use or haven’t used,’ within those parameters.”

Looking Ahead To The New Year

Sakaki said that his company is already looking ahead to 2021, when a second store in Brigham City will be opened. New product launches and strategic partnerships with brands such as Cookies are also planned.

“Our strategy has been to grow during this pandemic and then bring the patients of Utah proven formulations and brands instead of trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Sakaki said that this year’s rollout of medical cannabis in Utah, a notoriously conservative state, hasn’t been without its challenges. But he lauded state regulators for their capable implementation of the program, which has seen a total of 14 licenses for dispensaries issued so far, although not all have opened yet.

“We want to give kudos and really highlight the Utah state regulators, the health department and the Department of Agriculture,” Sakaki said, “because they’ve done a great job of listening and also getting this program accessible to all these patients.”

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