Gehrke: Medical marijuana compromise shows the LDS Church still controls Utah politics — but not as firmly as it once did

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Gerard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, speaks with House Speaker Greg Hughes following a press announcement where supporters opponents of UtahÕs medical marijuana initiative joined on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at the Utah Capitol to announce a Òshared visionÓ for cannabis policy.

For all the happy platitudes that accompanied the unveiling of a medical marijuana “compromise” Thursday, what got us to that point was a mutual interest in averting a brutal and embarrassing political collision.

When it comes to the medical marijuana initiative, the writing was on the wall. Both public polling and, I am told, internal polling conducted by both sides showed Utah residents wanted medical marijuana to be legal and nothing was going to stop that — not even opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But, as Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, said Thursday, passing Proposition 2 wouldn’t have been the end of it. Opponents of medical marijuana, including the church, had made clear they would have used their influence in the Legislature to pull the initiative apart, stripping away provisions they found objectionable.

Approval by voters, no matter how overwhelming, would have been the start of fights in the Capitol and the courts that could have delayed implementation and kept relief from suffering patients for years.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

“We don’t want to win the battle in November only to lose the war,” Boyack said. “More to the point, we don’t want there to be a war.”

Think about it: For what might have been the first time in the state’s history, the church was on the precipice of losing a political battle. Moreover, they were going to lose because a significant portion of loyal Mormons were going to vote for the proposition, despite the church’s opposition.

The optics of then dismantling the new medical marijuana law would have been abysmal, both for the church and the Legislature.

Elder Jack Gerard, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Seventy and the faith’s point man publicly and in the private negotiations, said it was simply a matter of the sides recognizing they had the common goal of “alleviating human pain and suffering.”

And maybe that’s the case. But if it is, where were they before now?

They were busy killing marijuana bills, according to former state Sen. Mark Madsen, who sponsored medical cannabis legislation. Moreover, church leaders refused to discuss what they didn’t like about his bill or how he could make it better.

If they had offered up anything like the draft bill unveiled Thursday, he said, “I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat and we could’ve had this two years ago.”

“People now who say they were working for medical cannabis for four years were actively working against it for the first 3 1/2. I’m pleased at this recent conversion, but it doesn’t erase how we got here, and we shouldn’t have to be here,” Madsen said. “As long as they thought they could kill the baby in the crib, they did it. When [it survived] only then did they come to the table at the very, very last minute.”

The whole thing, he said, gave him “political whiplash” — which is not a condition that qualifies for medical marijuana treatment.

It’s a practice we have seen time and again, both from the Legislature and the church. Call it The Utah Way: Ignore one type or another of injustice or human suffering until you can’t ignore it anymore. Pay lip service or maybe pass some token half measures so you can claim to have done something. And then, when the public is so outraged you can’t fight the tide anymore, make a deal and pat yourselves on the back for doing the right thing — after every other option is exhausted.

The Legislature did it when the public wanted election reform, passing Senate Bill 54 to avert a ballot initiative. We saw it with the deal struck to scuttle a tax increase to fund a public education ballot measure.

We saw the church beat back anti-discrimination bills for gay and lesbian Utahns until they couldn’t anymore, then helped craft a measure that exempted the faith. The church continues to be the biggest obstacle to passing a workable hate crimes law in the state.

And now we see it again with medical marijuana.

To give credit where it’s due, the bill that the parties came up with is not terrible. It’s a lot better than anything that has been considered by the Legislature in the past four years and, if they can actually make the distribution system — with a centralized location to fill prescriptions and distribution through a hybrid of county health centers and private dispensaries — work, it could be a functional bill.

Here’s the good news: With a replacement bill already on the table, even those who perhaps had reservations about parts of Proposition 2 can vote for it in good conscience.

Passing the initiative by an overwhelming margin would send a clear message to legislators — Utah wants medical marijuana for those who are needlessly suffering and we expect the Legislature and the church to follow through on their commitments.