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Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Utah’s medical cannabis pharmacies should remain open through the coronavirus pandemic, considered essential because they supply the plant-based treatments that patients rely upon, according to state health officials.

“People had hoped to have a big grand opening and something exciting they could offer patients and a tour,” said Desiree Hennessy, head of the Utah Patients Coalition.

That’s all out the window, she said, now that the state is focused on weathering a pandemic.

Wait times have lengthened at the state’s first cannabis pharmacy, Dragonfly Wellness on State Street, because the business is limiting the number of patients permitted inside at any one time, Hennessy said. Customers are supposed to stay in their cars until they get the all-clear.

The state has issued more than 1,000 patient cards since its medical program launched early this month and is reviewing many more, according to the Utah Department of Health. Nearly 1,400 patients are waiting for their medical provider to sign off on their application, many times because they need an in-person appointment with their doctors, said Rich Oborn, director of the state’s Center for Medical Cannabis.

The coronavirus outbreak has bogged down this part of the process, Hennessy said, because some doctors are limiting in-person visits and state law requires a physical appointment as part of registering for a patient card.

To loosen the bottleneck created by this registration system, state lawmakers decided to let patients use letters of recommendation from their physicians to buy cannabis until the year’s end. The legal revisions, which took effect earlier this week, are meant to relieve the pressure on the application process and give patients a few months to secure their state-issued cannabis cards.

Christine Stenquist, a cannabis advocate who’s been critical of the state’s program, said COVID-19 is only exacerbating weaknesses in the system and further restricting patients’ access to treatment. Her belief is that the state should legalize the home growing of cannabis so patients don’t have to depend on a handful of pharmacies to meet their needs.

“We don’t have the right amount of distribution points. We have this false scarcity that has happened,” she said. “I’m frustrated.”

Tom Paskett, executive director of the Utah Cannabis Association, said growers have kept working through the coronavirus pandemic, while using social distancing practices to reduce the risk of spreading the disease. The state regulations for the industry already require growers to meet strict health and safety standards, with only a handful of people permitted inside the cultivation facilities, he added.

The ongoing health crisis could, however, delay the openings of some cannabis pharmacies, said Bill Stevens, who is a partner in a company that holds licenses for two of the retail establishments.

While Perfect Earth Modern Apothecary in North Logan is on track to open next week, he’s not sure about the opening of their second pharmacy in South Ogden, which was supposed to debut by April 15.

“We’re trying to keep that timeline, but we just don’t know,” he said.

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