SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Chirine Touati is one of the millions of people in the U.S. who use marijuana for medical purposes.
“This is concentrated cannabis oil, and then what I do is I put it under my tongue,” said Touati.
She has a medical marijuana card in Utah. Touati uses marijuana to help deal with chronic pain.
“I get really bad burning pain in my feet that can travel all the way the way up my leg and even across my shoulders,” said Touati. “I have multiple sclerosis and I’ve had it for most of my life. I was diagnosed in 2006.”
She says the pain will keep her in bed most of the day on bad days.
She says medical marijuana is the most effective treatment for her pain.
But she says there are many obstacles that keep people like her from getting fair access to medical cannabis in Utah.
She's not alone.
“When we’re talking about access to medicine we’re talking about distance, how far is a patient traveling, how easy is it for a patient to get a medical card, how easy is it for them to have a conversation with their doctor about the topic. All those are little tiny barriers to a patient having access,” said Christine Steinquest, an advocate in Utah who helped pass the state’s medical cannabis law.
While that was a huge step forward, she says the barriers are preventing some patients from getting the care they need.
There are 14 dispensaries in Utah. Michigan, which is just slightly bigger than Utah in square miles, has 410.
“We would like patients to have reasonable access. It’s unreasonable to me to have a patient drive an hour to a dispensary. That’s not realistic. So we have a ways to go,” said Steinquest.
It’s not just a Utah problem. People in other states also say access is a major concern.
“There are some people that need to drive farther than 60 miles,” said Gayle Peterson, a registered nurse in North Dakota.
“One of the biggest things is (a) provider. Quite often, your own doctor you’ve had for many, many years doesn’t want to touch the stuff. Or we’ve heard of larger facilities saying, 'Nope, our providers cannot certify patients for it,'” said Peterson.
Meaning patients may have to seek out specific doctors to prescribe medical marijuana.
Finding a doctor is just one barrier. Price can be another issue for patients.
Touati says the oils she uses can get quite expensive.
“For a gram, it was over $100, for sure,” said Touati.
“It’s very expensive in this state, I mean there’s no way. It would be like a house payment. A couple grand a month,” she added.
Right now, there are bills in several states, including Utah, to examine or expand access to medical cannabis use. They would increase the types of products available to patients, allow patients to grow plants at home and expand access to CBD products among other things.
But Steinquest sees a long road ahead for nationwide access to patients.
“Is there a state with a perfect balance yet? No, I don’t think there is yet. I think we need some more federal action so that business can operate in a manner that makes sense and then maybe we’ll start to see some changes across the board that affect everybody,” she said.