Utah’s medical marijuana initiative could also test the LDS Church’s political clout

SALT LAKE CITY -- Proposition 2's win on Election Day is being viewed as a mandate to the Utah State Legislature about medical cannabis, but also a possible test of the strength of the political influence of the state's dominant faith.

The medical marijuana initiative, born out of years of frustration by legislative inaction, passed with about 53% of the vote. It also passed despite opposition from a coalition of groups including the Utah Medical Association, law enforcement associations and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The LDS Church was a vocal opponent of Prop. 2, which drove some of the poll numbers for the initiative down ahead of Election Day. But they backed off their opposition when they worked on a "compromise bill" with sponsors of the initiative and legislative leadership.

"I’ve had my concerns with how the LDS Church has been involved in politics, but win or lose this is about patients," said the Libertas Institute's Connor Boyack, one of the backers of Prop. 2 and involved in negotiations over the compromise legislation.

Asked if the election was also a referendum on the LDS Church's political influence, he replied: "I’ll leave that to others to decide."

Christine Stenquist, a founder of the group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, said she viewed it as a possible test of the LDS Church's political clout.

"It is," she told FOX 13 on Election Day. "It’s something that’s not meant disrespectfully, but it’s time for that thumb to come off the political scale here in Utah."

Religions can weigh in on social issues without fear of losing their tax-exempt status, just not political candidates. The LDS Church is hardly alone in weighing in. The Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake and the Episcopal Diocese of Utah also opposed Prop. 2, joining the Drug Safe Utah coalition. (The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City pushed heavily for passage of Proposition 3, the Medicaid expansion initiative.)

The LDS Church declined to comment Wednesday on questions about its political or cultural influence when asked by FOX 13. On Election Night, the faith released a statement on the vote placing its hopes with the legislative compromise bill.

"Following the Savior Jesus Christ, relieving human pain and suffering, while protecting children, truly is at the heart of our interest in this matter," the Church said. "We were pleased to come together with the Utah Medical Association and other members of the community to help create a more effective medical cannabis program, which includes avoiding the negative consequences that have manifest in other states. Our expectation is that prompt legislative action will address the shortfalls of the initiative which have been acknowledged by advocates of Proposition 2. The legislative alternative is better public policy and has broad support among Utahns."

Stenquist noted how people crossed religious lines, party affiliations to vote for medical cannabis. TRUCE, which was not part of the Capitol Hill talks, pushed for a yes vote to send a message to lawmakers considering that compromise.

Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, acknowledged the LDS Church's influence impacted polls. But he thinks the overall issue of medical cannabis drove voters over any possible anti-church vote.

"I don’t think it’s really a statement about the church. It’s a statement about medical marijuana. Utahns want it and there’s a segment that want to make sure the legislature doesn’t forget their interests," he said.

There was also another major factor that emerged on Election Night to drive Prop. 2 to passing: Salt Lake County voters. On county-by-county breakdowns, some rural areas voted against Prop. 2. But Salt Lake County itself canceled those votes out and voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. Demographics in Salt Lake County are changing as it starts leaning more left, he said. (Demographics also include more non-LDS people moving in statewide.)

"That’s what we’re looking at right now after this election, is what kind of influence does Salt Lake have?" Perry told FOX 13. "It turns out, you can have a huge impact on a proposition. You can also have a huge impact on a congressional race. People are looking at the demographics of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and they’re seeing them as a force. You’re going to have to listen to them."