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LDS Church's opposition does not necessarily doom medical marijuana bill, sponsor says

Published: Monday, Feb. 8 2016 7:50 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The sponsor of a bill to legalize the medical use of marijuana says The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' opposition to the legislation does not necessarily doom its passage.

"Obviously, I’d always like everyone to endorse every one of my bills but I’ve been here before on other issues. I’ve disagreed with the church on issues, they’ve fought me on some of my Second Amendment issues before and I’ve had to rally my colleagues over their objections. So we’ll see if I can do the same again this time," said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, in an interview Monday afternoon.

The Utah Senate could hear the bill, SB73, as soon as this week.

Asked if he might revise the bill to address the LDS Church's concerns about "unintended consequences," of medical marijuana, Madsen said change was unlikely at this juncture.

“We’re always looking to improve the bill, but we’re not going back to have any change or revision from the direction we’ve been going. If there was a dialogue or some kind of even mere impression what direction we might go, we’d consider it, but where do you go when there’s no meaningful feedback or dialogue?" Madsen said.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement Friday that there is concern about the "unintended consequences" of legalizing medical marijuana and "expressed opposition" to Madsen's bill.

"As we have said during previous legislative sessions, there are a number of potential impacts that must be considered in any discussion about the legalization of medical marijuana, including balancing medical need with the necessity of responsible controls," Hawkins said.

"Along with others, we have expressed concern about the unintended consequences that may accompany the legalization of medical marijuana. We have expressed opposition to Sen. Madsen's bill because of that concern," he said.

Madsen said it is a tragic outcome "when people are damaged by special interests that exercise tremendous influence over the public policy here."

There would be many "intended consequences" of such a change in policy, he said.

"We know opiate overdoses go down. We know certain things about feared consequences that don’t happen like teen use rates going up. Unless the people in Utah are a lot stupider than people in 23 other states, teen use isn’t going to go up and opiate overdoses are going to go down," he said.

"If there are other intended consequences we might be concerned about, let’s speak of them openly going forward and have a dialogue."

Some research indicates that states that permit medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.

The authors of a Rand Corporation study, which found that states that legalized medical marijuana and provided it through dispensaries saw reduced rates of deaths due to opiate-based narcotics, said they need more data to confirm their early findings.

Madsen said he is concerned about children who experience relief from seizures using cannabis oils, but they require higher levels of THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis — to keep the condition in check as they age.

"It would be tragic that the law would give relief to some subset of these little kids but not another. Or to allow them to have the relief and stop their seizures until they reach adolescence and then say ‘Oh, no THC. Sorry, you got to start seizing again,'" the state senator said.

Madsen said he worries about people who can readily become addicts from opiate medications.

"If we don’t give them a gateway out once we use the opioids, then we’re condemning them to addiction and dependency," he said.

Some people feel they have no choice but to break the law to purchase marijuana to self-treat pain or stave off opiate dependency, he said.

"It’s people who are sick and don’t want to become criminals. That’s who the law is damaging. You force the sick people to go buy it on the street and become criminals. It’s just so uncompassionate, so unjust," Madsen said.

Legislative leaders said the bill is going forward despite the opposition.

“It makes it more difficult," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told reporters Monday when asked about the impact of the statement. "I don’t know if I characterize it as dead on arrival.”

Niederhauser said he believes a more limited medical marijuana bill, SB89, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, may be approved when the bills come before the Senate later this week or early next week.

The LDS Church hasn't raised any objections to Vickers' bill, Hawkins said.

"I know there’s some concerns with that bill also. As I said a couple of days ago, one of the options is, we leave the session with the status quo," Niederhauser said. “I suspect that Vickers' bill would probably pass."

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said he hopes the Senate will hear both bills the same day so lawmakers can weigh their relative merits.

"I'm quite taken by the facts, discussion thus far and reports coming back, it's lowered the number of opiate deaths in the states that do have medical marijuana. It's being prescribed as a pain medication. I think that makes an interesting thing because of the addictiveness and everything they are claiming. I still need to do some more research," Davis said.

Minority Senate Democrats have not taken a position, Davis said.

"I believe there is leaning toward doing something. … I think the debate on both bills is important to hear," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he wasn't sure about what impact the LDS Church's statement would have.

"I don't know how much influence the church's announcement will have on this particular discussion just because we've been talking about this a couple of years. My thoughts are people have pretty much made up their mind," he said.

Okerlund said, however, there may be "a couple of fence riders who may be influenced by additional information that may come out. I think it's going to be just one of those really interesting debates on the floor where the floor debate may swing one way or another when we get to those bills."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said representatives are waiting to see what the Senate sends over on the issue. He said he believes the statement by the LDS Church would have "a lot" of influence on the issue.

"I think they're an important voice in our community," Hughes said, praising the church for speaking out.

"I actually think that being more public on some of the issues they see concern with is a transparency that I think is important, given that it's a predominant faith in the state," he said. "Having a more public position is better than a quiet one."

Hughes said he continues to have concerns with lawmakers making decisions about what qualifies as medicinal marijuana use and doesn't favor either bill, although he said he has met with advocates and understands their needs.

"I understand how important this is to many people," the speaker said. But he said even if one or both medical marijuana bills pass the Senate, they may not get a hearing in the House because of the number of bills this session.

"I believe we're going to get to a spot where there's more bills than there is committee time," he said. "I cannot assign its fate and wouldn't even try to. But I will tell you that, like all the bills, there's going to be that weighing of finite time."

Monday, Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, introduced a resolution, SCR11, urging Congress to reclassify marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 drug and encouraging Utah institutions to look at the feasibility of researching the benefits of medical marijuana.

Before making a decision on legalization, "we can actually look at the drug. Does it work? For what does it work? And what's the safety profiles?" said Shiozawa, an emergency room doctor. "It's not going to put it off for a long time."

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