Gehrke: LDS Church’s stance on medical marijuana doesn’t make sense. Why is it OK for a Nevada Mormon but not a Utah Mormon?

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Robert Gehrke.

At a 2010 conference for Mormon priesthood leaders in Colorado Springs, the first question asked was about the church’s policy on medical marijuana.

The response: It is an issue between the church member, the member’s bishop and the Lord, to be made in consultation with the scriptures and the LDS health code called the Word of Wisdom.

“The church has no position,” one church leader said, “on medical marijuana.”

That last statement was made by Russell M. Nelson in a video leaked in 2016. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Then he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; now he is president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On Tuesday, Nelson and his counselors in the faith’s governing First Presidency tried to keep straddling that fence with a statement on Utah’s medical marijuana ballot initiative. The language was squishier than green Jell-O at a ward picnic.

The top Mormon leaders did not directly oppose medical marijuana. They did, however, throw cold water on the ballot initiative, commending the Utah Medical Association’s blistering condemnation of the measure, which — as the church statement put it — “would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities.”

The statement went on to try to couch the church’s position as supporting policy driven by science — hardly surprising, given that Nelson was, after all, a hot-shot heart surgeon in his previous profession.

It is in the public’s best interest, they wrote, when new drugs “undergo the scrutiny of medical scientists and official approval bodies.”

That’s a reasonable philosophy. But it is also at odds with the church’s practice when it comes to marijuana.

In practice, a Nevada Mormon with cancer in West Wendover can, on the advice of a doctor, use medical marijuana and remain in good standing in the church.

Why then, should a Latter-day Saint living a few blocks away, in Utah’s Wendover, be seen as at odds with the church for seeking relief from medical cannabis? Why is it fine for a member living in, say, Dinosaur, Colo., but not for a member living 30 miles away in Vernal? Are science, medicine and faith so fickle?

Forty years ago, would Nelson have performed heart surgery drastically differently if his patient was on a stretcher in California rather than Utah?

Of course not. So why, from the LDS Church’s perspective, should the science be compelling enough to permit the use of cannabis in one state but not another?

Or, for that matter, for a faith whose members are taught to honor and sustain the law, how do leaders reconcile honoring state law while giving tacit approval to violating the federal ban on marijuana?

If the church is merely piggybacking on the Utah Medical Association’s objections — “We respect the wise counsel of the medical doctors of Utah,” the LDS leaders said — the logic again breaks down.

First, UMA represents only a fraction of the state’s physicians. In addition, the group’s critique reflects the views only of its board. The UMA opinion also presumes this group of Utah doctors knows something that doctors in the rest of the country don’t.

In 2014, WebMD and Medscape surveyed 1,544 doctors from 48 states and across medical disciplines, and nearly 7 out of 10 said marijuana can be an effective treatment for certain conditions while 67 percent argued it should be a medical option for patients.

There’s one part, however, the LDS Church got absolutely right by focusing on the “approval bodies.” In this case, the Drug Enforcement Administration has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it is illegal — at the federal level — nationwide.

Rather than having this patchwork of inconsistent and conflicting state and federal laws, it would be ideal if marijuana was rescheduled. That would provide a long-term solution that allows for a uniform national policy and open up new opportunities for much-needed research.

This kind of pronouncement from the church shouldn’t come as a surprise (it likely won’t be the last) and it remains to be seen whether it will sway followers.

A recent poll for The Salt Lake Tribune found that more than three-fourths of Utahns and nearly two-thirds of Mormons who described themselves as “very” or “somewhat active” in the church supported legalization of medical cannabis.

Two years ago, I wrote about several Utahns grappling to reconcile their faith and conditions they suffered from that could be treated with medical cannabis. One of them was Maddie Campbell, a teenager with a rare degenerative disease whose parents sought advice from church headquarters about whether it was OK to treat their daughter.

The response, from Gregory Schwitzer, a physician and head of missionary health services for the church, fell perfectly in line with Nelson’s interpretation a few years earlier.

“In states where the medicinal use of marijuana is approved legally and given under the guidance of a licensed physician, the church has [no] position,” he wrote. “ … The use of medical marijuana can be a great blessing to individuals who are suffering with these diseases in which other treatments have failed.”

It can be a blessing. But only if LDS leaders don’t use their power and influence to keep hurting Utahns from getting the same relief from medical cannabis that residents in 29 other states — Mormon and non-Mormon — already enjoy.