Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, says he will lead the fight to legalize a form of cannabis, to help children with a severe form of epilepsy.
A particular form of cannabis, distributed by a Colorado Springs nonprofit group called Realm of Caring, is thought to be especially effective in fighting a severe form of epilepsy, and contains extremely low levels of the chemical associated with getting a high from cannabis, sometimes known as marijuana.
Froerer said he will look at possible changes in administrative rules at the state level and even sponsor legislation if necessary in the coming session to bring attention to the potential therapy for a small percentage of epileptic children in Utah.
Froerer said the drug involved contains less THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, than some of the hand lotions on the market. He said the specific drug involved for epileptic children is also not to be confused with medical marijuana.
In meeting with the Controlled Substance Advisory Board, Froerer said the state could potentially open doors for the drug's use in the state without the need for legislation. He said measuring the level of THC is part of that review.
"If they feel they can consistently reach those levels, we may be able to do it by rule change," Froerer said.
He is the second politician in the Legislature to formally announce his support for such a measure. Earlier this year, conservative Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he would potentially support a bill dealing with a particular strain of cannabis being used as a medicine.
Annette Maughan, president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah, said at least 30 families in the Beehive State would be affected dramatically by access to the drug. More than 100,000 Utahns have epilepsy, she said.
"This is not a fun drug, it's just a medicine," Maughan said.
Currently, a form of medical marijuana is legal in 18 states. Under Utah law, possession of 1 ounce of marijuana can carry a sentence of up to a year in jail.
Jennifer May, of Pleasant Grove, has an 11-year-son who has Dravet syndrome, which can trigger hundreds of seizures a day and limit life expectancy to 18 years or fewer.
She believes the hybrid form of cannabis offered by Realm of Caring would give her son a chance to have a more normal and stable life. Her family currently spends more than $75,000 a year on medications to help her son deal with his condition.
Known as "Charlotte's Web," the drug helped one Colorado girl who was experiencing 300 seizures a week -- and not walking, talking or eating -- transition to a life in which she has one seizure a week and is beginning to learn to ride a bike and live life more fully, May said.
Maughan said two of the key ingredients in the cannabis plant are CBD, which has medicinal value, and THC. Recreational marijuana has five or six parts THC for every half part of CBD. The liquid form used for Dravet patients in Colorado has 15 parts CBD and one part THC.
May and Maughan recognize the battle they face in trying to legalize any form of marijuana. Maughan said the Epilepsy Association doesn't have years to invest in trying to get the drug legalized.
"If it does take years, our children will be gone," she said. Regarding eventual passage, she said, "It will happen."
Connor Boyack, president of Utah's Libertas Institute, predicted the 2014 session in Utah will see legislation addressing the issue of legalizing cannabis.
He said it is not an issue of hippies against the establishment anymore, but rather an issue being pushed by conservative mothers who want access to a derivative of marijuana for medicinal reasons for their children.
Froerer said its important people become educated on the issue.
"There are going to be people who see this coming from a hemp product and won't take time to be educated. What we're hoping for through this education process is to talk to those people who understand the medical benefits of this and how it will help a significant part of our population without any harm," Froerer said.
The Republican said he has spoken with Senate leadership about the issue and suggested there may be more support in the Legislature for allowing the drug use than some would imagine. But he is also a realist.
"This won't be a slam dunk."