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Even after a February statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged policymakers to take "cautious approach" with medical marijuana, and amid uncertainty about the drug's legislative future, a new poll reinforces that a majority of Utah voters approve of its medicinal use.
More than half 58 percent either somewhat or strongly approve of legalizing medical marijuana, and 39 percent somewhat or strongly disapprove, according to a poll of 820 likely voters for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics by Dan Jones & Associates.
Measures of public opinion have held steady since Tribune-Hinckley polls showed a 10 percent increase in support from January 2014 (51 percent) to January 2016 (61 percent).
Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian think tank Libertas Institute, said roughly 10 similar polls have been conducted in two years, and "every single one of those polls has confirmed that around 60 percent or more of Utah voters support this."
Medicinal use of the plant is legal in 25 states, and Utah is one of 15 others in which a nonpsychoactive extract can be used in the treatment of seizures. Sale and use of marijuana for recreation is legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
A May poll from Quinnipiac University showed that 88 percent of Americans endorse marijuana's medicinal use and 54 percent believe it should be legal for general consumption.
In Utah, though, there remains a pronounced divide between members of the state's predominant religion and other voters.
Of 500 poll respondents identifying as "very active" or "somewhat active" Mormons, those approving medicinal use outnumbered those disapproving, 260 to 220. Eighty percent of remaining survey participants were for it.
A February church statement advised that "further study is warranted before significant public policy decisions on marijuana are advanced." In a recently leaked video from 2010, church leaders discuss whether the medical use of marijuana would violate the church's Word of Wisdom, which prohibits alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea.
Said apostle L. Tom Perry, who died last year: "I can't understand our great emphasis on getting rid of tobacco to then start a project to increase marijuana. It is so inconsistent."
The church's February statement came as former state senator Mark Madsen tried in vain to establish a state-regulated network of cultivation facilities and dispensaries. Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, likewise were unsuccessful in passing a narrower proposal that excluded products with significant levels of the drug's psychoactive chemical, THC.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has advocated for further research and said during this year's general session that "the time is nigh to see if we can find a pathway forward on this, but I'm not interested in having Dr. Feelgood out there saying, 'Yeah, yeah, que pasa? Here's your doobie for the day and you'll feel better.'"
His Democratic challenger, Mike Weinholtz, is a proponent of medical marijuana whose wife, Donna was investigated by the federal government for its use to treat her arthritis and nerve pain.
Eighty-four percent of the state's Democrats favor legalization, with 61 percent strongly in favor. Of Republicans, 35 percent are strongly opposed, while 17 percent strongly approve. Overall, a majority (53 percent) of the state's GOP voters disapprove of legalization.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, believes a low-THC strain from Washington state's THC Labs holds promise as an alternative to opioids that would hold little appeal to recreational users. He hopes to put forward a tentative proposal later this month.
Meanwhile, Utah Drug Policy Project of Utah president Turner Bitton said his organization is helping Daw and Vickers refine their pitch for another run.
"I think Senator Madsen started something that isn't going away," Bitton said. "The energy and the enthusiasm is still there. While it may not be as intense, it still exists."
An opponent of Madsen's proposal, Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, disagrees. Madsen was the "driver" of the effort, Christensen said, and subsequent attempts will hit a dead end.
That's the worry of House District 17 Democratic candidate Christine Stenquist, who has said marijuana relieved the debilitating pain she felt from an inoperable brain tumor. Stenquist is among those working toward a 2018 ballot initiative in case the Legislature remains deadlocked.
"My concern is that we're going to have the same thing we had last session: We're going to have competing bills and nobody is going to be happy and nothing gets passed," she said.
A ballot initiative is a "last resort," she said. To get on the ballot, proponents would need backing from 10 percent of voters in 26 of Utah's 29 Senate districts more than 100,000, in all. Bitton cautions that a ballot initiative could also create a divide between medical marijuana proponents and lawmakers who find themselves gravitating toward their side, anyway.
"Even if it is a smaller step and a more limited program in 2017, we can build on that," Bitton said. "... If we take this really aggressive approach, we're going to harm all the goodwill that's been generated by the Legislature."
But Boyack sees it as the only solution, with satisfactory legislation doomed by opposition on the House Health and Human Services Committee. A ballot initiative is "clearly preferable to kissing the ring of legislators that turn a cold shoulder to these suffering patients," he said.
Rep. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, authored a resolution in the last session calling on Congress to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, which would pave the way for research into medical use. An emergency room physician, Shiozawa submitted an op-ed to The Tribune earlier this month in which he wrote that "additional, in-depth, focused, evidence-based studies" are necessary to reassure medical providers.
Shiozawa told The Tribune by phone that President Barack Obama missed an opportunity to enact change at a federal level. "Then that says, if the feds don't do it, then maybe it has to come down to the states."
Stenquist, Boyack and Froerer said they have all the literature they need. Israel, Stenquist and Boyack said, has been researching the medical applications of marijuana for more than 50 years.
"Forcing Utah taxpayers to spend their money on redundant studies that have been done elsewhere ... it's not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, it's a waste of time," Boyack said. "They'd admit at most a few dozen people, with a very limited set of conditions, some of whom would receive a placebo."
Utahns with severe epilepsy are allowed to use cannabidiol, a marijuana extract, if it is obtained in other states. In April, the University of Utah's Division of Pediatric Neurology and Primary Children's Medical Center reported a 40 percent decrease in the frequency and severity of seizures among participants in a clinical trial of a purified liquid form of the drug.