The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still opposes Proposition 2 but is now asking the Utah Legislature to legalize medical marijuana this year — likely in special session after voters decide the ballot measure’s fate.
Prop 2 supporters see the faith’s sudden sense of urgency as subterfuge to kill the initiative with promises for action — which could later be ignored or made overly burdensome by conservative lawmakers.
“We would like to see this taken care of before the end of the year,” Marty Stephens, the church’s director of community and government relations and a former Utah House speaker, said in an interview.
“We would like to get a solution that will help alleviate pain and suffering for the residents of our state, but that’s a good solution that doesn’t bring the negative effects that will come if Prop 2 passes,” he said. “Our preference is not to have these people wait any longer.”
So the church seeks a special session of the Legislature this year but probably after the Nov. 6 election.
“Our thinking is that we go through the election, and have a special session one way or the other to make sure that we’ve got this right," Stephens said.
“Drafting a piece of legislation isn’t something that just happens quickly,” he said. “But I think we could certainly get a set of core principles around which a piece of legislation could be built that people could be aware of before the election.”
Paul Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the governor is not prepared to call lawmakers into session without a concrete piece of legislation.
“It’s premature to be talking about a special session when we haven’t seen even a specific framework of what people are looking at, let alone real legislative language.”
However, he said, if legislative leaders are able to develop a consensus proposal, “We’d obviously be looking at that” — and would consider a special session.
House Democratic leader Brian King of Salt Lake City said the church’s new proposal “strikes me as sort of an effort to derail Proposition 2 and throw a wrench in the works to get people to vote no when they would otherwise vote yes.”
He worries that if Prop 2 is defeated, asking conservative lawmakers to then take action would likely be met with the reaction: “'Really? Well the people of Utah just voted down a medical marijuana proposition. So you’re asking us to take a pretty big step to do something most of the people in the state have said no to.'”
King said Prop 2 “has some flaws, and some of them are significant. But I’m voting for it because I think the best way of putting in place a good medical marijuana statute is to pass Prop 2, and then address the deficiencies in the regular session in January.” Like about 90 percent of his colleagues in the Legislature, the Democrat is a Latter-day Saint.
DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, which put Prop 2 on the ballot after the Legislature for years fell short of passing such a law, called the new move part of “a consistently moving target of what the church’s position is on this issue.”
He added, “We are concerned that the very people who gave us the Zion Curtain are now trying to give us the green curtain,” he said referring to a large barrier restaurants had been required to install to prevent children from seeing alcoholic drinks being mixed.
“If history is a predictor of the future, I can’t see [the Utah Legislature enacting] anything other than an overregulated system where patients are the victim," he said, “where it forces them to go to the black market, which is what we’re trying to avoid.”
The LDS Church was largely silent on the topic of medical marijuana until this year, announcing its support for the product when accompanied by proper safeguards.
Stephens said the church is making its call for speedy action now because “there’s been some confusion about what the church’s position was.”
Last month as the church joined a coalition opposing Prop 2, Elder Jack N. Gerard, a general authority Seventy, said, “The church does not object to the medicinal use of marijuana if doctor-prescribed, in dosage form, through a licensed pharmacy.”
However, none of the states that now allows medical marijuana meets the qualification of “doctor-prescribed, in dosage form, through a licensed pharmacy" because of federal law. Those states instead distribute through dispensaries to people with notes from medical professionals.
Now, Stephens said, “We’re not going to insist on anything. We’re part of a coalition, and we understand that everyone is probably going to have to give a little bit on this. There’s going to have to be a spirit of compromise.”
He added, “But we do want to make sure that whatever is passed will protect the children of our state from the unintended consequences that will come if Prop 2 passes.”
As an example, he wants to avoid a 59 percent jump in marijuana-related road fatalities that he said Colorado saw after it allowed medical marijuana — and a 26 percent increase in marijuana use by youth.
“There are a whole variety of statistics that are not pie in the sky. They are actual facts that will come to Utah if we don’t do this the right way,” Stephens said. “We can craft a Utah solution that will allow appropriate access to those who have medical needs, and not have the harmful effects” of states that allowed medical marijuana.
The new call by the church is not slowing campaign efforts by supporters of Prop 2, who plan TV and other ads soon.
“We’re moving full speed ahead,” Schanz said. “The campaign is just getting kicked off. We think we have a very powerful message: It’s time to decriminalize these victims and give them the medicine they need.”
Public opinion polls have shown a majority of Utah voters in favor of the ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana.