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COLUMN: Utah lawmakers slowly take a step in the right direction bet need to up their game

By Paul Christiansen
On March 19, 2014

Her name was Charlee Nelson. She was only 6 years old.

She was a representative figure of the more than 50 children throughout Utah affected by epileptic seizures. Nationwide studies conducted in the past have shown this neurological disorder could be effectively treated through the use of cannabis oil, a substance that doesn't share the intoxicating effects of similar marijuana derivatives. Recently, Utah has been posed to become the 22nd state to legalize the use of some type of medical marijuana.

But being the 22nd state to hop on board an idea that other states — including neighboring states Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and the nearby Washington, California and Oregon — have adopted, it seems as if Utah has been dragging its reluctant feet for some time as other areas moved toward a viable solution to a problem affecting more and more people.

I will say this; once a recent House Bill was proposed to the Utah Legislature, representatives took quick action to come to a decision on whether cannabis oil should be made legally available to those with epileptic neurological disorders. It cleared the House Law Enforcement Committee in an 8-2 vote Feb. 21 and was sent to the House floor for full debate shortly after. On Thursday, the Legislature passed H.B. 105 and named it "Charlee's Law" in Nelson's honor.

The bill is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, but it comes too late for Nelson, who passed away Saturday morning, only two days after the Legislature's vote. Her death came after nearly three years of increasing mental impairment and worsening seizures, which diminished her sight, motor skills and ability to speak.

Although cannabis oil wouldn't have cured Nelson's seizures, it likely would have calmed their severity and prolonged her life. The girl's father, Jeff Nelson, told The Salt Lake Tribune his family was grateful for the love and support the community showed for his daughter and the courage if the Legislature to take on this controversial issue.

"We feel more than honored to have her name attached to this law for what it will mean for parents like us who are so desperate for seizure control," he said. "It's a way of remembering Charlee, to let her name live on."

It's a brave statement certainly, and I don't doubt his sincerity. But one can't help but wonder if Jeff Nelson wishes such action had been taken in the past so this type of treatment could have been available to his daughter. Perhaps if it had, she would be around rather than only her name attached to a bill.

The problem with Utah — and a problem I fear will always be prominent — is our ability to create controversial issues where there is no controversy. In spite of support from doctors and researchers throughout this state and across the country, cannabis oil is still being debated within community circles.

Why are Utahns so eager to rally against a treatment that has been proven to help prevent and calm debilitating seizures? I would say it's because of the intoxicating components found in THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high, but those effects are not associated with this oil. Likewise, why are so many Utahns fine with the "Zion Curtain" law that demands all alcoholic drinks in restaurants to be poured and mixed behind a partition so young eyes won't be encouraged to take part in alcohol consumption? Are these same young eyes not affected by watching a person at a neighboring table consuming the margarita that was just brought to them by their server?

I realize liquor laws and cannabis legalization are two different things. My point is that Utah has some strange laws, but an even stranger population. As time pushes forward and our Legislature takes on tough issues and handles them with tact, I hope our citizens can look past the taboo context they've been presented in the past.

This is 2014, a time of science and society. There's no need to drag your feet against things that could ultimately extend your life and the lives of those in your community and family. The time to act is now to make sure the future is a viable thing for our children. Like Bob Dylan said, “The times, they are a’ changin’.” Maybe we should change with them.

Paul is the former features editor of The Utah Statesman and is a senior majoring in print journalism. Send any comments to paul.r.christiansen@aggiemail.usu.

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