Mormon leaders call for new medical-marijuana plan in months

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Gerard of the LDS Church, with Lisa Harkness and Craig Christensen, announces the church's opposition to Utah's medical marijuana initiative at a news conference in Salt Lake City, Thursday Aug. 23, 2018.

Mormon church leaders are calling for Utah lawmakers to pass medical-marijuana legislation by the end of the year even as they urge people to vote against a ballot measure that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Church leaders say they oppose the ballot measure because they believe it could allow recreational users get marijuana in Utah if it passes in November, but they still want patients with serious medical needs to have access, the Deseret News reported Sunday.

"This isn't 'let's wait till next year to have a conversation.' It needs to be dealt with soon. There's an urgency to accomplish this," said Jack Gerard, a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The church has argued the ballot measure would allow too many people to get medical cannabis cards without sufficient safeguards against doctors “rubber stamping” access.

But Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said it’s too early to gather lawmakers to consider an alternative to the ballot measure. Herbert typically calls a special session only when there is a “near consensus” among state lawmakers and there’s a long way to go to reach one on medical marijuana, spokesman Paul Edwards said.

Herbert has said he will vote against the ballot initiative known as Proposition 2, but he wants lawmakers to act next year.

Democratic lawmaker Brian King, on the other hand, said he’s voting for Proposition 2 even though he thinks it’s flawed. The House minority leader said the likelihood that the Legislature would pass a bill if the ballot initiative fails is “slim and none.”

A special session would likely be held in November or early December, shortly after voters weigh in on Nov. 6.

Medical marijuana advocates decided to ask voters to approve medical marijuana in Utah after years of unsuccessfully pushing for broader legalization at the conservative Legislature dominated by Mormons and Republicans, and have been skeptical about whether lawmakers will take action.

The plan has been gaining steam in Utah as medical marijuana becomes legal in the most U.S. states. Last month the church made a rare public statement against it. The church holds outsized political sway in its home state, but it remains to be seen whether the opposition will sink the ballot measure.

At the same time leaders spoke against the ballot measure, the church made its first ever public statement supporting the use of medical marijuana if prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacy.

Gerard said that is a turning point in church policy that hasn’t generated enough attention, but advocates have said it would be illegal under federal law for doctors to prescribe marijuana and for pharmacies to dispense it. In states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes doctors can only recommend its use and the marijuana is distributed by dispensaries.

Proposition 2 would create a state-regulated growing and dispensing operation to allow people with certain medical conditions to get medical marijuana cards and use the drug in edible forms, lotions or electronic cigarettes.