UT: Gov. Herbert, LDS Church Create Smoke On Medical Cannabis

Photo Credit: Steve Griffin

The effort to change Utah’s marijuana laws has been a slowly rising tide in recent years as the Legislature considered proposals and ultimately enacted only minimal reforms.

Due to a citizen initiative that will likely go before voters this fall, Utah appears ready for a tidal wave of change regarding medicinal cannabis. A March poll commissioned by UtahPolicy.com indicates that three-quarters of adult Utahns somewhat or strongly support “legalizing doctor-prescribed use of non-smoking medical marijuana.” The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, also found that two-thirds of “very active” Mormons supported legalization.

While it appears that the medical marijuana train is about to leave the station, some very powerful forces hope to disrupt the timetable. One opponent is Gov. Gary Herbert, who vowed to “actively oppose” the initiative and worried its consequences “will do more harm than good.”

Another force is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — certainly one of the most powerful institutions in Utah. The LDS Church didn’t expressly condemn the initiative, but a statement from the First Presidency last week commended the Utah Medical Association’s caution that “the proposed Utah marijuana initiative would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities.”

As a private institution, it’s certainly appropriate for the church to express itself on issues that concern it. We also know that when the church speaks, a lot of people — from lawmakers to everyday people — listen. The church’s statement on the initiative may reverberate all the way to November.

With that said, we question why the LDS Church is opting to intervene in the marijuana debate at this time. As an organization that spans the country and the world, there have been countless opportunities to weigh in as any of 29 other states legalized medical marijuana. As of 2010, the church reportedly had no position on the matter.

It’s also interesting that the church is intervening in marijuana and not necessarily other medical issues facing our nation. For example, the United States has a massive, growing problem with painkiller abuse. However, there’s no use of the word “opioid” on MormonNewsroom.org, the church’s public relations outlet.

Considering the initiative, many opponents of medical marijuana in Utah share a similar argument — that there needs to be more research. Herbert writes “… I support efforts to allow medical researchers to better understand the medical properties of cannabis.” In its statement, the LDS Church writes “The public interest is best served when all new drugs designed to relieve suffering and illness and the procedures by which they are made available to the public undergo the scrutiny of medical scientists and official approval bodies.”

It’s disingenuous to imply that there’s a lack of research on medical marijuana. Other states have had some version of medical cannabis going back to 1996, so there have been more than two decades of practical evidence and opportunities to study the matter. Additionally, there are certainly some worthy projects being explored, such as the University of Utah’s research for children with some types of seizure disorders.

Saying there’s a dearth of medical marijuana research is like if a caveman saw another caveman with a wheel and wished there was more data on round objects and their ability to move stuff.

It is true that federal restrictions on the plant make it difficult for researchers to receive permission to study medical marijuana. That’s one reason why this week Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch and California’s Sen. Kamala Harris called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to have the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration cease efforts to block medical marijuana research.

Despite the federal restrictions, there are several legitimate efforts to study the medicinal effects of cannabis, including the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research.

Marijuana is a complex and confounding issue, especially as law-abiding citizens try to reconcile states legalizing a drug that is still prohibited under federal regulations. However, it does a disservice to Utahns to pretend that the state is forging new ground when it’s actually treading where dozens of states have gone before.

As we head toward a likely vote in November, we hope that this issue will be fully considered on its merits. Ultimately, it should be up to the electorate to decide whether medical cannabis is best for Utah.