Lobbyists for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approached members of Utah’s congressional delegation in the hope they’d show their opposition to the medical marijuana initiative heading to the November ballot, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.
That occurred as the measure’s opponents worked to broaden the coalition that is speaking out and working to defeat the initiative.
Organizers plan to hold a news conference in coming days to showcase what they hope to portray as a growing opposition backed by a greater range of community leaders and groups. It’s not yet clear whether that will formally include the LDS Church.
The church wouldn’t confirm its active involvement in contacting members of Utah’s congressional delegation about the outreach, but several people with knowledge of the effort — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations — confirmed it. And a newly obtained email provided insight into how Utah’s predominant faith is approaching the initiative.
The email, provided to The Tribune by initiative supporters, shows Marty Stephens, the former Utah House speaker and current lobbyist for the LDS Church, discussed with pro-legalization leaders in early June ways to set aside the ballot measure in favor of a negotiated agreement.
Stephens wrote that the groups could work together to achieve what he called his personal goals: protecting children from increased exposure to marijuana, allowing access “to those with true medical needs” to marijuana-based medicine, and preventing what he estimated would be a fight that would cost $5 million to $10 million.
“I think we should not try and write the legislation,” Stephens wrote, “but try to come up with a document that we can both agree to that would list the key components that whatever piece of legislation was passed would need to contain in order to have our joint support.”
If the two sides could come to an agreement, he wrote in the email, he could work with “Church leaders, the [Utah Medical Association], the S.L. Chamber, legislative leaders and the Governor’s office to try to get their support as well,” he wrote, with the goal at the time of calling on the governor to convene legislators for a special session.
That prospect is now is off the table.
Three people familiar with the matter confirmed that church lobbyists contacted Utah politicians to see if they’d sign onto a letter opposing the medical marijuana measure, known as Proposition 2. A fourth person confirmed a church representative reached out to explain the religion’s stance on the initiative.
Stephens didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday, nor did a spokesman for the church.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who is running against Republican U.S. Rep. Mia Love, confirmed he’d been contacted about a letter but didn’t sign it.
“He believes that this is an important issue for Utahns to decide,” said Alyson Heyrend, a McAdams spokeswoman. “Mayor McAdams respects the initiative process, which lets all voters express their view at the ballot box."
A spokeswoman for Love didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Chris Stewart said he was not personally contacted by Drug Safe Utah or LDS Church representatives, but could not speak to whether his campaign or congressional staff had received any communications.
“I’ve been gone for a couple weeks,” Stewart said. “I’d have to check if they talked with the team.”
It’s not yet clear whether the work to broaden the coalition – which calls itself Drug Safe Utah – formally includes the LDS Church, which represents the religious affiliation of more than half of Utah’s active voters.
Initiative opponents' efforts to enlist politicians in the cause and showcase that opposition also included a request to Gov. Gary Herbert for access to a conference room at the Capitol that typically hosts formal government events like ceremonial bill signings.
“There was a request to use the Gold Room for a press event this week,” Paul Edwards, Herbert’s spokesman, said. “We explained ... that it would be an inappropriate use of that space.”
The event is scheduled to be held Thursday in the state office building auditorium.
The request for use of the Gold Room came from Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, Edwards said. It followed the coalition’s attempt earlier this month to get help from the governor on defeating the initiative. Opponents asked for access to his email list and for Herbert to direct state agencies – which will be in charge of regulating medical marijuana should it pass – to speak out against it. Edwards said Herbert declined to help.
"We've been pretty clear that it wasn't going to work for us to be a part of their coalition and efforts," Edwards said.
Daw said he requested the Gold Room to assist the coalition, but is not involved in the ongoing planning behind the event. He declined to elaborate on what Drug Safe Utah intends to announce.
"It's kind of out of my hands right now," Daw said. "I don't want to steal anybody's thunder."
Drug Safe Utah recently added a top-level attorney with deep ties to the LDS Church to help in its effort.
James S. Jardine, who is the chairman of the church’s Salt Lake-area public affairs council, joined Drug Safe Utah in recent weeks before approaching Herbert. Before Jardine’s involvement, Drug Safe Utah had been primarily led by attorney Walter J. Plumb, an anti-marijuana crusader, and the Utah Medical Association.
The group has filed two lawsuits seeking to block the initiative from reaching voters. It asked for the first to be dismissed but refiled again last week, in part claiming the measure could violate Mormons' religious beliefs.
If the church was to actively join the campaign against the measure, it would be a win for opponents.
A poll by The Salt Lake Tribune showed early statements by the LDS Church that it had “grave concerns” about the initiative after reading a seven-page analysis by its attorneys moved active members away from supporting the measure.
The poll showed 54 percent of registered voters who identified as “very active” members of the church said they supported the initiative, while 44 percent opposed it, and 74 percent of somewhat active Mormons said they supported it.
But when asked whether LDS Church’s criticism of the initiative changed their mind, 29 percent of active members said they were less likely to support it. Fifty-eight percent said it made no difference.