Medical marijuana legal in Utah, but not always affordable

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FILE - In this July 2, 2019, file photo, Darren Johnson, a hemp processor, holds raw hemp that will be used to make CBD oil at his processing facility, Wasatch Extraction, in Salt Lake City. A Utah group that led the push to get medical marijuana legalized in Utah launched a new project with marijuana pharmacies in the state Tuesday, April 20, 2021 to get certain people discounted rates on pot. They say they're doing it because people can't use health insurance to pay for it. (AP Photo/Morgan Smith, File)

SALT LAKE CITY – Pain left from oil-field work defeated traditional pain pills and dominated William Adams’ life — until he tried medical marijuana. But even as he began venturing outside his home for the first time in years, Adams discovered he couldn't afford the cost.

Medical cannabis typically isn't covered by insurance or Medicaid because it remains federally illegal. The group that led the push to legalize it in conservative Utah says that has kept it unreachable for many patients who need it.

The Utah Patients Coalition on Tuesday joined a small but growing list of programs around the U.S. aimed at helping low-income patients access the drug. The project is among the first to offer ongoing subsidies statewide.

“I thought that we had relieved a lot of suffering, and I can’t deny that we have,” said Desiree Hennessy, executive director of Utah Patients Coalition. “But then the phone calls have changed from ‘Hey I need help, I need cannabis’… to ‘I can’t afford to go to the doctor.’ ”

The coalition has partnered with cannabis pharmacies across the state that will offer discounted medications to patients approved for the subsidy.

Similar programs include one in Berkeley, California, for patients making less than $32,000 a year. They can access medical cannabis for free at local medical dispensaries through a city ordinance. States like Florida and Oregon offer reduced prices for state medical cannabis cards.

In New Mexico, a longstanding proposal to create a “low-income medical patient subsidy fund” to underwrite medical marijuana purchases failed this year as the state legalized recreational pot during a special session. New Mexico soon will waive taxes that currently apply to medical marijuana sales and the new cannabis excise tax for medical patients — a discount of nearly 20% in most cases.

The lead House sponsor of the successful legalization bill there has vowed to reboot social and economic justice provisions that were stripped from the legislation.