LDS Church weighs in on medical marijuana ballot initiative

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' First Presidency issued a statement signaling how it views the medical marijuana ballot initiative.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the First Presidency heaped praise on the Utah Medical Association, which said it opposed the ballot initiative:

"We commend the Utah Medical Association for its statement of March 30, 2018, cautioning that the proposed Utah marijuana initiative would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities. We respect the wise counsel of the medical doctors of Utah.

The public interest is best served when all new drugs designed to relieve suffering and illness, and the procedures by which they are made available to the public, undergo the scrutiny of medical scientists and official approval bodies."

An LDS Church spokesman told FOX 13 they would not elaborate on the statement, nor offer any interpretation about whether it was a full-throated opposition to the initiative.

The Utah Medical Association has claimed backers of medical marijuana are "misrepresenting and misappropriating the position of the medical profession in Utah to garner support for their initiative."

It's led to heated pushback from supporters of the initiative.

"UMA's position reflects nothing more than the opinion of its board. Far from being based on research or science, let alone the consensus of the doctors they purport to represent, it is a position that does not speak for many doctors like myself who are prepared to provide this medicine for our patients," said Dr. Dan Cottom, a member of the UMA, in a statement released through the Utah Patients Coalition, which is running the ballot initiative.

Reacting to the LDS Church's statement, the Utah Patients Coalition insisted the ballot initiative alleviated concerns.

"The LDS Church should be commended for its concern with public health and safety—laudable goals we are pursuing with our proposal. Too many patients face criminalization and unrelated, dangerous products as they pursue their own health. Oversight from regulators and doctors, as provided by the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, would increase public health and safety while providing safe access to patients who need this treatment option," said DJ Schanz.

Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, which has lobbied the Utah State Legislature for medical cannabis laws, also was critical of the UMA stance.

"The Church is apparently willing to put all of their eggs in the basket of the Utah Medical Association regarding this critical initiative that would allow Utah patients compassionate access to cannabis. It is essential that both the Church and the voters of Utah understand that the UMA does not represent all of the physicians in this state," said Dr. Andrew Talbott, a member of TRUCE's board.

The statement from the Church comes as other Utah leaders have spoken in opposition to the initiative. Gov. Gary Herbert said he would "actively oppose" the ballot initiative.

Fed up with inaction by the Utah State Legislature (which has so far only passed a bill to allow terminally ill patients a "right to try" medical cannabis and an order to the state to grow the marijuana for them), patient advocates have pushed for the ballot initiative which would allow people with a list of conditions to seek it from a qualified physician.

The initiative has gathered more than 160,000 signatures. It only needs 113,000 to qualify for the November ballot. However, those signatures must meet a threshold of 26 of Utah's 29 senate districts. The Utah Patients Coalition has previously told FOX 13 it is close to meeting that by the April 16 deadline.

Medical marijuana is polling with huge popularity in Utah. A recent poll put it at 77% approval in the state, even amongst faithful Mormons. It is unknown if the LDS Church has weighed in on medical marijuana ballot initiatives that passed in other states. It has, however, vocally opposed recreational marijuana initiatives in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Religions are allowed to weigh in on political issues but not candidates without risking their tax-exempt status. The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City recently urged its members to support the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative.