SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH — Eight weeks before election day, opposition to a citizen-led ballot initiative to legalize medical cannabis has taken a significant religious turn—one that could change the outcome on the vote come November: Utah’s predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has publicly thrown its weight behind the coalition working to defeat Proposition 2.
The announcement, during a Capitol Hill news conference last week, was followed the same day by a rare email blast to the faith’s followers, who make up more than 60 percent of Utah’s roughly three million residents, encouraging a No vote on the ballot measure.
While the church does weigh in on issues of moral concern—think alcohol law, gay marriage and immigration—its more specific political lobbying typically occurs in private. “This is different,” said Matthew Burbank, an associate political science professor from the University of Utah, “primarily because it’s public.”
This turn of events also wasn’t the only religious twist in the battle for medical marijuana legalization here. A lawsuit filed August 15 on behalf of a group called the Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Utah and four individuals, including a Mormon developer who has funded the Prop. 2 opposition, asked a court to block Prop. 2 from the ballot, claiming its passage would trample the religious rights of Latter-day Saints who could be forced to “consort” with medical cannabis cardholders.
Also known as Drug Safe Utah, the coalition includes the Utah Medical Association, Utah law enforcement organizations, the Salt Lake and Hispanic chambers of commerce, conservative lobbyist groups, state business leaders, two members of Utah’s congressional delegation, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney and more than three dozen members of the Utah Legislature, all of them Republicans.
Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not part of the coalition, also opposes the initiative. The governor does support legalized medical marijuana, however, and at a meeting with reporters on Thursday urged Congress to reschedule the drug.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs dropped their religious freedom claims almost immediately after the church joined the anti-initiative coalition and made it clear that the faith was not party to the suit. A new version of the lawsuit still seeks block the initiative, but on free speech grounds, and no longer includes the coalition as one of its plaintiffs.
It isn’t clear whether the lawsuit’s shifting argument and the church’s new public position opposing Prop. 2 are related, but some believe it can’t be a coincidence. That includes a former Utah state senator who served sixteen years in the legislature, Steve Urquhart, who said he thought the lawsuit attempt to use a religious argument was an “embarrassment” to the church. Urquhart said he suspects the church wanted to remain on the sidelines and let the Drug Safe Utah coalition, which includes the Utah Medical Association, business leaders and dozens of politicians, run the opposition. “But I think it started to get increasingly scared that those groups weren’t getting the job done,” said Urquhart. “So it had to go on stage.”
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Proposition 2 would legalize medical cannabis possession for patients with an approved condition, such as chronic pain or cancer. Currently, only high-CBD extracts are allowed, a provision aimed at helping children with intractable epilepsy conditions, and earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation to allow those with terminal illnesses a “right to try” cannabis products, too.
Mormon church leaders have consistently said since 2010 that the faith has no objection to the use of medical marijuana. And the church has previously taken no public position in the other two dozen plus states that have already legalized medicinal uses of the plant.
But Proposition 2, the ballot initiative voters will decide on in just a little more than two months, goes too far for some church leaders. At a Capitol Hill news conference last week, a church elder warned that Prop. 2, if passed, could open the door to recreational use and a host of public safety threats.
And Jack N. Gerard, a member of the senior church leadership group known as the Quorums of the Seventy, said at the news conference that Proposition 2 “does not strike the appropriate balance in ensuring safe and reasonable access for patients while also protecting youth and preventing other social harms.”
Gerard also said the church would support legalized medical cannabis as long as it was “doctor prescribed in dosage form through a licensed pharmacy.” Neither are possible under current federal law.
The church’s statements have sparked a firestorm of pushback on social media from what appears to be faithful Latter-day Saints who support medical cannabis use and legalization. Posts on a Facebook page for the group Mormons for Medical Cannabis, which promotes the hashtag #sufferingsaints, have criticized the church for its position, employing references to church scripture that encourage the use of “all things that come from the earth” to “strengthen the body and enliven the souls.”
That the church is jumping in to to defeat Prop. 2 at all is an issue for some. The faith’s own rules and scriptures advise against political activity, Bill Reel, host of the podcast Mormon Discussions said. “It’s very clear that leaders should not use members’ information, their phone numbers or their emails for political purposes,” said Reel, pointing to the Handbook of Instruction used by the church’s lay leaders. “And that’s exactly what they’ve done. I think it’s hypocritical.”
Urquhart isn’t convinced that the church’s public position will change many minds. Those already poised “to let the church direct their voting,” won’t waver, he said. And for those who are more weary of the faith’s political maneuvering, the church’s current activism likely drives them away.
“I think the church’s control over its members is more tenuous by the day,” he said.