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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposes a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen that would make Utah the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana, citing unintended consequences that could come with use of the drug.
The state's predominant faith is not taking a position on another measure, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, that would allow extracts from the plant that do not contain the psychoactive chemical THC.
"Along with others, we have expressed concern about the unintended consequences that may accompany the legalization of medical marijuana," LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement to The Tribune. "We have expressed opposition to Senator Madsen's bill because of that concern. We are raising no objection to the other bill that addresses this issue."
Lobbyists for the Utah-based faith have conveyed to Madsen, as well as House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, that the church opposes the bill, but did not explain its objections.
Madsen said he asked to discuss the reasons for the church's stance but was rebuffed.
"I asked them, 'Can we have some kind of a productive, meaningful conversation?' and each time they just said, 'You know the difference between the other bill. It's not the other bill,' " Madsen said. "So I say, 'THC?' And I get a vague nod."
Senate committees approved both bills Thursday after four hours of testimony.
The unwillingness by the church's representatives to discuss concerns with the bill has Madsen frustrated and speaking openly about the faith's work behind the scenes.
"Maybe they don't want to be known as the special interest who put their thumb on the scale and decided this for everyone in the state," he said. "If they're going to put their thumb on the scale politically and force everyone to a standard, then I think they owe something of an explanation to the people."
The LDS Church employs several lobbyists who frequently visit the Capitol to weigh in on issues before the Legislature.
"We'll meet on a regular basis and they'll explain different bills that they're watching, and it's no different for them than others who would participate in the process," Hughes said Friday. "But they had indicated to me their government-relations people that was a bill that they were first concerned about and ultimately looking to oppose."
Alcohol and morality • Niederhauser said the church rarely weighs in on legislation, but when it does, it is typically on issues of alcohol policy or morality.
"Obviously this falls into that moral-alcohol-substance arena, and so they're very concerned about just going down this road of medical marijuana, but they haven't given me any details on why," the Senate leader said. "It wasn't a surprise to me that they have concerns about it."
Last year, support from high-level LDS leaders was crucial to the passage of a statewide anti-discrimination bill protecting gay and lesbian Utahns from employment and housing bias while safeguarding some religious liberties.
Two years ago, Mormon apostle D. Todd Christofferson recorded a video arguing against liberalizing Utah's liquor laws, effectively derailing efforts on alcohol policy for the year. LDS officials have again been consulted on liquor policy this year.
Several years ago, the church actively advocated for a bold immigration-reform bill before the Legislature, arguing that immigrant families shouldn't have to live in the shadows and fear being split up by law enforcement.
Those are the same fears now being faced by patients who use medical marijuana, Madsen contends.
"They have to dislocate themselves from their community and move away or at least the sick one does or they take them off to jail. That breaks up a family, too," he said. "Why does [compassion] apply to one group of people? Is it because there's a greater potential baptismal pool in [the immigrant] demographic? … Are [the ill] people not worthy? Have they sinned in some way that makes them unworthy of that consideration?"
Opioids vs. marijuana • Brian Stoll broke his back in a fall four years ago while he was a student at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and was put on various opiates and muscle relaxers for the pain before he started using marijuana "and found it works better without the side effects."
A year ago, he started dating Rachael, and they were later engaged. But to marry in an LDS temple, Stoll's bishop after consulting with his stake president, a regional lay leader told him he had to stop using marijuana or move to a state where medical cannabis is legal.
Stoll quit using the drug back in July and got back on the opioids and muscle relaxers, which make moving painful and on some days impossible.
"I really wanted this to pass so I could go back to using and keep the temple recommend, so I could keep going to the temple with my wife, but at the same time be able to work and get out of bed in the morning," Stoll said.
"It's a bit surprising to me that it's OK for me to be on all the opioids that put me at continual risk of dying, of addiction, of all the complications," he said. "It amazes me I can have a temple recommend with the one and not the other."
Generally speaking, the church does not bar the use of medicinal marijuana by members in states that have legal programs in place so Mormons who live in Colorado, Oregon, Washington or any of the 20 other states with medical programs can use the drug and remain in good standing.
"Leaders advise members not to use any sort of potentially harmful or habit-forming substances," Hawkins said, "except under the care of a competent physician."
A vast majority of Utah lawmakers belong to the LDS Church and about 60 percent of Utahns are Mormons.
That gives the religion's leaders tremendous sway over its followers and influence in the political process, said Madsen, who himself is the grandson of late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson and a devoted member of the faith. Madsen admitted last year that he tried medical marijuana in Colorado to treat his chronic back pain.
"My testimony is as it was the day I moved to Utah: I love and sustain and support the ordained brethren and would never think about doing otherwise," Madsen said. "It just bothers me when it comes down like tablets from on high. There is no dialogue."
A poll conducted last month for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah found that 61 percent of Utahns supported some form of legalized medical marijuana. That figure included 48 percent of Mormons in support of medicinal marijuana, compared with 44 percent who opposed it.
"We've come so far from the old principles of self-reliance, teaching correct principles and let [people] govern themselves," Madsen said. "It seems like now it's: 'Teach them correct principles and just in case send your lobbyist down to force them to do the right thing.' And that's a very different philosophy."