SALT LAKE CITY — In the parking lot of Dragonfly Wellness, a DJ played music as people picked up pamphlets at booths and celebrated "4/20."
While some celebrate the unofficial holiday dedicated to all things marijuana, others revel in a hard-fought political battle to get medicine. Utah's medical cannabis program is growing, but advocates worry a lot of patients are still being left behind.
"If we go back to March 2 , the day the medical cannabis program opened? There were 17 medical cannabis patients in the state of Utah that could legally access," said Narith Panh with Dragonfly Wellness, a medical cannabis pharmacy in downtown Salt Lake City. "Now? We have almost 26,000 patients and that number is growing. We expect by the end of the year at least 50,000 medical cannabis patients to be in the program."
The Utah Patients Coalition had a basket out at their booth, collecting donations to help buy cannabis for qualifying patients. The group, which sponsored Proposition 2 that legalized medical marijuana, has launched a new initiative to help terminally ill and indigent patients be able to afford their medicine.
"What we face again is patients every day in desperate need of medication," said Desiree Hennessy, the executive director of Utah Patients Coalition. "Most of the time, a lot of these patients are faced with deciding, 'Am I going to buy food? Or am I going to buy medical cannabis?' And it wasn’t just one or two patients."
Utah has recognized medical cannabis as a legal, lawful controlled substance for qualifying patients. But because marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, it will not be covered by Medicaid or private health insurance.
So the Utah Patients Coalition is now taking applications and raising money to subsidize medical cannabis for those who can't really afford it.
"Cannabis is not a cheap medication," Hennessy said. "As much as we hope as the program grows and the prices will go down, that’s not this year. And for a lot of these patients when these prices go down, they’re still not going to be able to cover it."
Some cannabis patients are homeless. Others are drowning in medical bills.
Dragonfly Wellness and other Utah dispensaries are also participating in the subsidies. Since it opened in 2019, Dragonfly has set aside approximately $140,000 to offer assistance for low-income and terminally ill patients, Panh said.
Most patients spend between $150 to $400 a month on medical cannabis, depending on their needs. Laura Shroyer is among them.
"I get what I can get when they have deals. I have a certain amount of money I can spend on it," said Shroyer, who was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
Shroyer said cannabis helps her more than prescription pain pills do. She is planning to apply to Utah Patients Coalition for a subsidy.
"It would help me financially, and maybe just less stress," Shroyer said. "Less stress, which is healing."
Hennessy called for Prop. 2 supporters to step up and help out their fellow Utahns.
"We never had a problem with support passing Prop. 2," she said. "We are asking for the community to pitch in. if you have a family member that’s been suffering or know someone and can understand the pain they’re going through? This is a place where you can donate."