LDS Church announces opposition to Utah medical marijuana initiative — but says it does not object to medical pot with proper safeguards

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Candi Huff confronts Kem Gardner after a news conference where a coalition including the LDS Church came out against Utah's medical marijuana initiative, in Salt Lake City on Thursday Aug. 23, 2018.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally joined the opposition to Utah’s medical marijuana initiative Thursday, adding a powerful voice to a list of opponents that also included dozens of other groups and public figures.

But Elder Jack N. Gerard, a general authority Seventy, said the Utah-based faith isn’t opposed to medical marijuana if administered under supervision of a physician.

The announcement came at an event put on by Drug Safe Utah, the name of the campaign opposing the initiative. The group held a Capitol Hill news conference to unveil an expansion of opponents to the measure that’s known as Proposition 2.

“The church does not object to the medical use of marijuana,” Gerard said, “if doctor prescribed in dosage form through a licensed pharmacy."

Still, the church intends to fight the initiative at hand in Utah, including by having Elder Craig C. Christensen, president of the Utah Area of the church, send out an email to members urging them to fight the initiative as well.

Previously, the LDS Church had taken no official stance on medical marijuana, which is legal in more than two dozen states, although it’s still listed on the highest rung of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

It’s unclear whether the statement will affect the standing of Latter-day Saints in states where medical marijuana is legal under state law but not dispensed through a pharmacy. Most states with medical marijuana laws have private dispensaries, rather than pharmacies, that distribute cannabis products containing the psychoactive ingredient THC.

Doctors also aren’t allowed to prescribe marijuana. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June approved the first medication that’s derived from cannabis, a federally illegal plant that 31 states have legalized for medicinal use.

After issuing a statement alongside dozens of fellow opponents, Gerard said he was speaking specifically to Utah’s initiative, without suggesting the statement represented guidance to Mormons in all states.

“We’re focused on Utah today and talking about Proposition 2," Gerard said. “It goes too far.”

The wider group of opponents, which now also includes wealthy, politically active donors, said it was committed to working with the Legislature on alternative legislation that legalizes marijuana for patients.

Nathan Frodsham, who previously supported Proposition 2, announced Thursday he was joining the broader coalition against the initiative as the best practical way to legalize cannabis for a wide group of patients in Utah.

“If we get everybody on board, this goes to another level,” Frodsham said. “This is a higher probability of helping patients, in my opinion.”

Frodsham, an active Latter-day Saint who was featured in a Salt Lake Tribune article in June for his support and past use of marijuana, said he didn’t take the church’s position as a directive to followers that they would fall out of good standing with the faith if they don’t obtain marijuana through a pharmacy.

“I don’t think they’re going to, like, punish people for using it medicinally,” he said. “It’s not a moral question, in my mind. It’s more of what’s coming into Utah, helping protect the community from an industry that could have long-term effects down the road.”

Gerard also offered a terse response when asked about a lawsuit filed last week by a leader of Drug Safe Utah that argues Prop 2 violates Mormons' religious freedoms.

“The church is not part of that lawsuit,” he said.

Initiative supporters, some of whom stood with their backs turned while opponents announced their expanded team, said they expected Utah’s predominant faith to become involved at some point in the campaign.

“They’ve been against us behind closed doors for four years,” said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, which organized Prop 2. “This isn’t anything new.”

Still, the church’s followers represent more than half of Utah voters. And a poll taken in June, after two statements that indicated church leadership had concerns about the initiative, showed some active members were persuaded to not support the initiative after criticism from the church.

The initiative, if passed, would allow for at least one private medical marijuana dispensary in every county. Salt Lake County could have up to eight under the population-based formula, which allows for one dispensary per 150,000 residents, rounded up.

Patients with a qualifying medical condition and recommendation from a physician would be issued a card from the Department of Agriculture that would allow them to possess and consume marijuana products, which would be tested before sold through the dispensaries.

Thirty other states have similar laws. Utah lawmakers voted in March to allow physicians to recommend marijuana to a patient who is expected to die within six months. Under that limited new law, the marijuana would come from a state-run dispensary.

Michelle McOmber, chief executive officer of the Utah Medical Association, which until Thursday represented the bulk of the campaign against Prop 2, said the ballot initiative does not provide strict enough controls for the use of marijuana as a medical treatment.

Physicians who recommend marijuana would have no idea what type of product their patients took, or what dosage, she said. Instead, patients would simply take whatever a distributor persuades them to buy.

“That’s not medicine,” she said. “It could be cookies, brownies, all sorts of different products.”

The formal opposition of the LDS Church, which claims membership of more than 60 percent of Utahns, follows months of work behind the scenes, at first to avoid the initiative and, more recently, to help bolster support for the fight against it.

Public opinion polls have shown majority support for the initiative.