MIDVALE — Count Patrick Byrne among those rooting for cannabis to be legalized for medicinal use by Utah voters at the ballot box later this year.
The Overstock.com founder and three-time cancer survivor says he has medicated with cannabis to help him neutralize the effects of his numerous health issues over the years.
“It is so clear that we were designed for this stuff to work on us,” Byrne told the Deseret News. “The evidence is just overwhelming, from a medical point of view, that this can be part of a healthy lifestyle.”
That view runs counter to those who support more research to scientifically support the use of marijuana before going down a path of legalization, and to the Utah Medical Association which says use of the whole plant has not been substantiated.
Nevertheless, Byrne is throwing his support behind legalization, joining another influential Utah business magnate and cancer survivor — billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. — in speaking out favorably on the medicinal use of cannabis.
Byrne, who in the late 1990s founded the Midvale-headquartered online retailer that has its shares valued at almost $2 billion on the Nasdaq stock exchange, said cancer is just one of a few severe medical misfortunes — including hepatitis C diagnoses — that he’s lived with for the past 30 or so years.
Byrne has spent more than “800 nights of my life” in a hospital bed, he said, and he’s undergone more than 100 surgeries. He made headlines in both 2013 and 2016 when he took a leave of absence due to health problems.
“For the first 15 years of that, marijuana played no role,” Byrne said. “It’s been part of my life for 15 years on and off. I prefer it to the ‘big pharma’ stuff.”
Byrne is opening up about his views and experiences with cannabis as a ballot initiative promoting its legalization for medicinal use in Utah is considered and as state lawmakers prepare to haggle over the merits of bills allowing the plant to be grown in Utah and allowing terminal patients access to it, among other changes.
Those bills are expected to be discussed Wednesday in a meeting of the House Health and Human Services Committee.
Byrne said he can confidently swear by cannabis’ ability to neutralize his pain, nausea, anxiety and trouble sleeping due to using it “when I go through medical events in my life.”
“I generally do it when I’m getting myself back into shape,” he said.
Byrne is an enthusiastic supporter of the ballot initiative that would legalize cannabis for medicinal use if favored by voters in November.
“I’m actually very hopeful it will pass,” he said. “It will be a great signal for Utah to express itself.”
A Utah Policy poll in November found that 73 percent of Utahns are in favor of legalization of medicinal cannabis. The Dan Jones & Associates poll of 600 Utah registered voters found that 97 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, and 61 percent each of Republicans and Mormons who self-identified as “very active” said they support legalizing “doctor-prescribed use of nonsmoking medical marijuana for certain diseases and pain relief.”
“I’m proud the support (is) that high in Utah,” Byrne said.
DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition ballot initiative campaign, has said the group expects to have the required petition signatures by early February to qualify as a ballot measure, well ahead of the April 15 deadline.
Byrne isn’t the first Utah business icon to speak approvingly of cannabis in recent months.
Huntsman, who has dedicated much of his charitable work to fighting cancer via funds for the Huntsman Cancer Institute and has beaten the disease four times, said over the summer that he would like the opportunity to try cannabis for medical purposes.
Byrne said that during his fights with cancer, nausea has made it hard for him to keep his weight up, similar to other patients, and his health care providers have “told me the single most important thing I can do for myself” is not to shed too many pounds.
Cannabis helped him with that, he said, leading him to view the substance “as one of the greatest gifts from God.”
Byrne also said he believes that if policymakers’ goal is to reduce the power of drug cartels, legalizing medical cannabis would be a means to that end as well.
“The last thing cartels want is to have it legalized,” he said.
Byrne insists his support of medical cannabis doesn’t rely solely on his own favorable experiences with it. Strong research into its benefits exists, he argued, and he is skeptical of any claims that more studies need to be done before giving patients access.
“(People’s) heads are in the sand if they really believe that,” he said.
Still, researchers put in charge of a $500,000 state-funded clinical study into cannabis’ effects on pain have said Utah lawmakers are wise to pursue more data on the substance.
“There have been very few high-quality, placebo-controlled trials of substances that are known to have a (consistent) content of THC or (CBD),” Perry Renshaw, one of two University of Utah psychiatry professors overseeing the research, told the Deseret News in November.
It is possible the preliminary results from that study will be available to present to legislators by the end of the current legislative session.
Others who have asked for more research before committing to full medical legalization of cannabis include Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Medical Association, and conservative think tank Sutherland Institute.
In addition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement in June, two days after the ballot initiative paperwork was filed, cautioning there are “legitimate questions regarding the benefits and risks of legalizing a drug that has not gone through the well-established and rigorous process to prove its effectiveness and safety.”
he LDS Church’s statement at the time also said “the difficulties of attempting to legalize a drug at the state level that is illegal under federal law cannot be overstated.”
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, is the sponsor of HB197, a bill introduced this legislative session that he says would enable the state Department of Agriculture to coordinate the growing of “full-strength cannabis” for the purpose of studying it, with the goal of creating “a great environment where we can do real first-class research.”
Currently, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug means that it must pass multiple regulatory approvals to be researched. This classification significantly slows down the work that researchers can do and makes effective studies more difficult to complete, Renshaw has said.