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Utah farmers worry they’ll be squeezed out by ‘Big Weed’ for medical cannabis licenses

SALT LAKE CITY -- It was standing-room only as Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food took public comment on new regulations for medical cannabis cultivation.

During the hourlong hearing on Wednesday, many asked for clarification on lines of code in the rules for cannabis grows. But some farmers openly expressed concerns they'll be competing for a limited number of state licenses with marijuana cultivators based outside Utah.

"What’s wrong with ma and pa medical marijuana growers if they’re at a smaller scale?" said Richard Markosian with Made in Utah, which advocates for state-grown products.

Lyle Christensen, a fifth-generation farmer from Salem, told FOX 13 last week he was planning to apply for a license. He questioned how fair it was that local farmers had to compete with large-scale marijuana producers out-of-state.

"It worries me that the Department of Agriculture, who are supposed to advocate for Utah farmers, says it becomes a conflict of interest and that’s something they can’t do," he said.

Christensen said he still intends to apply for a license, believing it could do a lot of good for people. State agriculture officials said they cannot give preference when awarding licenses.

"I think everyone at the Department of Agriculture and Food is sympathetic to those feelings," Drew Rigby, who oversees the medical cannabis program, told FOX 13. "Unfortunately, there’s no preference we can create under Utah law to put them in an advantage as compared to someone who’s coming out of state."

Rigby said he believed all applicants will be treated fairly.

It will cost farmers $2,500 just to apply for a license. The state will only award 10 licenses and a license will cost each of those cultivators $100,000. The licenses will be awarded to applicants by mid-July, and those farmers are expected to turn around and produce crops for qualifying medical cannabis patients by January 2020.

Rigby acknowledged the initial marijuana crops could be thin.

"We’re not going to hit the ground running. This is a very complex machine. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have product available in some shape or form by January," he told FOX 13.

Desiree Hennessy of the Utah Patients Coalition, which sponsored Proposition 2 (the medical marijuana ballot initiative) and negotiated the replacement bill in the Utah State Legislature, said her group was hopeful the state-run program would get off the ground.

"I think the biggest thing we need to focus on right now is this was created for patients," she said. "So we need to just be trying to get whatever’s out there, whether it’s out-of-state, in-state, get the best product on shelves for patients."

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