Commentary: Latter-day Saint leaders oppose a medical marijuana initiative. Will it turn the tide for voters in Utah?

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

On Thursday, a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed the church’s official position against Proposition 2, a medical marijuana initiative that’s scheduled to be on the ballot in Utah in November.

I’ve been watching this issue for months, ever since the church’s May announcement that it had “grave concerns about this initiative and the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted.”

At that time, the LDS Church urged voters “to read the attached memorandum and to make their own judgment.” On Thursday, that tone seemed to be replaced with a more decisive opposition: the church wants voters to defeat this measure and emailed the state’s Latter-day Saints to fight the issue.

According to the message sent to church members Thursday, the proposition creates “a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls.”

It’s important to remember that the LDS statement does not oppose all medical use of marijuana in all places. In fact, the position is rather nuanced: the church acknowledges that medical marijuana can be a viable treatment for some people who are suffering; it simply does not believe that this particular ballot measure is the best way to help those people without opening the door to recreational use, which it opposes. Instead, the church advocates stricter controls, saying that medical marijuana must be prescribed by a physician and dispensed at a pharmacy.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. In April, a poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that three-quarters of Utah voters were in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in the state — a finding that repeated almost exactly the results from that same poll being administered two previous times.

But support dropped to two-thirds of Utah voters by the time The Tribune repeated the poll in June of this year, a few weeks after the church’s May statement.

Now that the church’s opposition has become more transparent, it is anyone’s guess how the measure will fare come November.

History is not on the side of the Prop 2 advocates. In the past, once the state’s predominant faith has taken a strong stand on a political issue, whether it be the MX missile or Proposition 8 in California in 2008, Latter-day Saints have tended to fall in line with the church’s position.

Consider the Equal Rights Amendment, for example. In 1974, according to historian Neil J. Young, it looked like the ERA was going to sail through the Utah legislature easily; a Deseret News poll found that two-thirds of church members favored its ratification.

The following year, it all fell apart. What happened in the interim?

The day before the Legislature’s opening session in 1975, the LDS Church published an anti-ERA editorial in the Deseret News, saying that the proposed amendment was “not only imperfect but dangerous” and “so broad that it is inadequate, inflexible and vague.” The measure was then soundly defeated as a majority of Utah voters seemingly changed their minds overnight.

If history is not on Prop 2’s side, what is? Demographics.

In the 1970s, a higher percentage of Utah’s population was Mormon, meaning that a directive from LDS leaders about how to vote or what to believe may have carried more political weight. Today, various polls have placed Utah’s Mormon population in a range of anywhere from 51 percent (PRRI, 2016) to 55 percent (Pew, 2014) to 63 percent (Tribune, 2014).*

So Mormonism is still a majority faith in Utah, but that majority is more tenuous than it was two generations ago. And that might make the difference come November, when Utah voters head to the polls to decide about medical marijuana.

* The Tribune’s figure is likely higher because it is based on membership data the LDS Church provides at the county level rather than individuals’ own self-reported religious identification, which is how PRRI and Pew obtain their numbers. In other words, the number of people who are on membership rolls is higher than the number who self-identify as Mormon on surveys.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.