How Mormons Are Leading Utah's Fight for Medical Marijuana
The church presents a tricky obstacle for patients and advocates in this deeply conservative state.
The angel Moroni statue, silhouetted against a cloud-covered sky, sits atop the Salt Lake Temple, at Temple Square, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
This piece was published in partnership with The Influence.
One summer day in 2007, Utah State Senator Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs) was grilling chicken and corn on the cob in his yard with his family, when he was hit by what felt like the flu. As a chronic pain patient, Madsen, who sustained back and spine injuries from two car accidents and playing football in his youth, was wearing a Fentanyl patch to alleviate his discomfort. Not realizing the Fentanyl patch had burst, Madsen went to go lie down.
"Our oldest daughter came to me and said, 'Mom, Dad told me to wake him up, and I can't wake him up,'" recounts Madsen's wife Erin. "I went downstairs to wake him up, and he was cold and clammy. He had turned gray. He was not breathing." They called 911 and their neighbor who was a paramedic, while Erin tried to resuscitate Madsen with rescue breaths. "I could feel that his heart was beating, but he was not breathing. I was terrified. I had four young children, and I thought my husband was dead."
Having survived an accidental opioid overdose, Madsen has become one of Utah's strongest proponents for medical marijuana. He sponsors Senate Bill 73 (SB 73), currently up for debate in the state assembly, to make cannabis available to patients who qualify under nine conditions—including cancer, AIDS, and Alzheimer's—or are allergic to opioids, or at high risk of addiction.
Madsen is also a practicing Mormon, the grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given the Mormon Church's opposition to the ingestion of substances like alcohol—or even coffee—Madsen's support for medical marijuana is surprising, and he clashes with the church on his bill.
"I have absolute faith, but I have stewardship to the people who elected me," Madsen tells The Influence. "I don't believe it's the government's business to tell people what they can take into their bodies. It's not the government's business to tell you what state of mind to be in."
The church, which initially took a strong stance against SB 73, has softened its position following some amendments—most notably the bill's recent exclusion of smoking cannabis flower. Patients would be able to consume cannabis only in extract form, such as capsules, tinctures, or vaporizable oils.
As of February 22, the church's latest statement urged a "cautious approach" to medical marijuana: "In our view, the issue for the Utah Legislature is how to enable the use of marijuana extracts to help people who are now suffering, without increasing the likelihood of misuse at a time when drug abuse in the United States is at epidemic proportions, especially among youth. Recent changes to SB 73 are a substantial improvement." Still, the church demands more research on the effects of marijuana and the perceived risks of THC.
Partly because of such concerns, Utah's legislators are now deliberating two medical marijuana bills that have progressed from the State Senate to the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Senator Evan Vickers (a pharmacist by trade), is competing with SB 73. It's a CBD extract bill; that is, Vickers' bill allows a select few retailers to sell, to a limited range of patients, medical marijuana extracts high in cannabidiol (CBD)—a non-psychotropic chemical compound that alleviates pain, inflammation, anxiety, and seizures. This rival SB 89 excludes medical marijuana with more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the dominant compound in cannabis, which also benefits several health conditions, but additionally makes users feel high. Utah has already enacted a CBD bill called Charlee's Law, which allows qualifying patients to order cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC from other states. SB 89 would allow retailers to sell similar products within the state.
"Our biggest challenge is overcoming Reefer Madness propaganda and helping legislators understand that legalizing medical cannabis does not necessarily put Utah on a 'slippery slope' toward recreational," says Connor Boyack, a supporter of SB 73 and president of the Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank based out of Lehi, Utah.
Around 80 percent of Utah legislators belong to the LDS Church. "Each is affected by the position of the church to different degrees," says Boyack. "Some will do whatever they ask without question, while others consider the church's statement as they would any other organization, focusing instead on representing their constituents."
Utah is 60 percent Mormon and 64 percent in favor of medical marijuana. With or without the church's blessing, Mormons in Utah are coming to their own conclusions about cannabis.
Allison Easley from Sandy, Utah, suffers from fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. She is a devout Mormon, having been active in various children's and women's church groups, and has even served in leadership roles. "I have a complicated relationship with the church now that they've made statements," she says. "I suffer on a daily basis, and the other people who are LDS in states where it's legal are allowed to use medical marijuana. But in Utah? Nope."
"I was struggling with the church as it was," she continues, "but this has pushed me to want to leave for good. My health, being able to take care of my eight children, being able to walk, play, be a wife—none of this can happen if I'm in pain and addicted to opiates."
Easley says she and her Mormon peers with debilitating medical conditions feel betrayed by the church. She used to live in California, where she learned firsthand that medical marijuana—and specifically, cannabis herb containing THC, but not CBD oil—helps her. "My opinion on the church's statement is that it's turned the state of Utah into a theocracy, and that's troubling for me. These men who run the church, they're old. They still believe Reefer Madness because they were told to believe that 50s propaganda."
Easley and her family now plan on moving back to California because of this issue; she says up to 12 of her friends' families have already done the same, relocating to Oregon and Colorado.
In fact, Easley explains, marijuana is not even mentioned in the Mormon health code, called the Word of Wisdom. The text condemns alcohol, tobacco, and hot drinks like coffee, and advises sparing meat consumption. (The LDS Church itself denied our requests for comment.)
"Substances like alcohol can alter your state of mind and thus not give you the most control over of what's happening, or you might not have the agency to control your body as you want," says Brandt Malone, editor-in-chief of the Mormon News Report. That's the rationale the church may be using in regard to marijuana, he says.
"But what's the difference between me taking Percocet or being on a morphine drip, versus a doctor saying, 'You have some back pain, and I'm going to recommend marijuana?'" Malone asks. Each month, 23 people die of prescription drug overdoses in Utah; heroin addiction rates are rising there as well.
Pat Bird, director of operations at the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment, says those opposed to SB 73 are concerned about social impact. "We know that THC is linked to numerous problematic situations with young adults with regard to psychotic episodes, IQ, and impact on substance abuse and addiction. We have an excessive amount of information on the harms of marijuana," Bird claims, citing increased marijuana DUIs and emergency room visits from edible freak-outs. "CBD, though we don't know the total impact, we know it doesn't have any psychoactive substances in it." (It should be noted that while marijuana can have adverse effects, most use is non-problematic. Claims that it lowers IQ are opposed by scientific evidence, and zero people die from marijuana overdose each year, compared with many thousands of deaths relating to prescription pills and alcohol.)
The church understands the impact marijuana can have on social problems, says Bird. "We stand behind the science and the medical community to handle this, not popular vote. We know that marijuana is not benign and virtuous." Popular vote isn't used to approve other medications, he argues, so if marijuana is in fact a medicine, it should be treated as such. "Something we should increase is the research. I would fully support that," he adds.
"Many politicians aren't educated on the actual science behind cannabis, its mechanism of action, and the way it interacts physiologically," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "When people take medicines, they take pills. There's a stigmatization against smoking." The church and other opponents of SB 73 continue to call for more research before they will back a bill that is broader than only allowing CBD-dominant extracts.
As SB 73 awaits action in the House of Representatives before the end of the legislative session on March 11, the biggest problem is that communities are split, says Christine Stenquist, a patient and founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), which advocates for medical marijuana in Utah. "Law enforcement is split, the medical community is split. You can find studies and statistics, which support whatever perspective you want. That's what creates this problem of not knowing who to believe." (Senator Madsen's assistant tells The Influence that SB 73 was dealt a setback Monday when it was voted down 8–4 in the House Health and Human Services Committee.)
Madsen cites studies showing a decrease in opioid overdoses in medical marijuana states, while Pat Bird and his allies rely on studies illustrating an uptick in marijuana use disorders. For now, Stenquist says advocates for the bill are waiting for a friendly committee in the house to pick it up. If by March 11, it doesn't pass, she says TRUCE has enough financial backing to pursue a ballot initiative for November—though with a fast-approaching April due date, some doubt whether a medical marijuana ballot initiative requiring over 100,000 signatures is still feasible.
"Right now our wings are clipped; we're in a holding pattern," says Stenquist. "I know a lot of people who are upset and frustrated. Even if you're not a practicing LDS member, the LDS Church affects your day-to-day life."
Madison Margolin is a New York-based journalist who covers marijuana and cultural and social issues. Follow her on Twitter.