SALT LAKE CITY — Seventy-three percent of Utahns favor legalizing the medical use of marijuana, including strong majorities of Republicans and members of the LDS Church who self-identify as "very active," a new poll says.
In the UtahPolicy.com poll, 600 Utah registered voters were asked whether they "support or oppose legalizing doctor-prescribed use of nonsmoking medical marijuana for certain diseases and pain relief."
Just 23 percent said they are opposed, with 4 percent saying they don't know, according to the Dan Jones & Associates poll. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they were strongly supportive, with 26 percent saying they were somewhat supportive.
The poll also found that 61 percent of Republicans, as well as 61 percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who called themselves "very active," are in favor of legalization for medical purposes.
Among Democrats surveyed, 97 percent are in favor, while 80 percent of self-identified independents said the same.
Among those who identified themselves as "very conservative," 58 percent favor legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Just 13 percent of all respondents said they are "strongly opposed."
The poll was conducted Nov. 16-21 by Dan Jones and Associates. It has a 4 percent margin of error. It closely mirrors a poll conducted by the same firm from late August to early September that found 74 percent of Utahns favor legalizing medical marijuana, including 63 percent of self-described "very active" LDS Church members.
A ballot initiative campaign called the Utah Patients Coalition is currently collecting signatures across the state in order to let Utah voters decide on legalization in November 2018. DJ Schanz, director of the coalition, said the results of the new survey are "not surprising at all."
"It's in line with exactly what's been coming back the past year or so, with Utahns overwhelmingly supporting medical cannabis," Schanz said. "(Utahns) realize that this just isn't an ethereal solution, but it's a very tangible solution to many of their problems, and many of these people know folks who have success using cannabis for treating their conditions."
The campaign has said it is optimistic it will have enough signatures by early next year to qualify to put the issue on the ballot. The deadline for getting the required signatures is April 15. Schanz said Thursday that about 75,000 of the 113,143 required signatures have so far been collected.
"We don't want to, obviously, celebrate prior to a victory, but we feel confident we have the right message, we have the right (initiative) language, we have the right people on the ground to make this happen. We are confident in November 2018 this will pass," Schanz said. "We're on target on all our goals and what we're trying to accomplish."
The Utah Medical Association, an industry organization that advocates on behalf of physicians and other health providers in the state, has come out this year against the initiative. Michelle McOmber, CEO of the association, reiterated her stance Thursday that she questions the assumptions built into the term "medical marijuana" and wonders whether Utahns are given the full picture when asked about the issue with that phrasing.
"If I were to say to you, 'Should we legalize medical marijuana,' your thoughts on that would be automatically different because you would automatically assume you have all the information you need for a medical product," McOmber said. "I think people need more information on what's being asked and they really need more information on what's being proposed."
She added, "There's a difference between a drug, or a medical product, or approved drug."
"If it's (called) 'medical,' you would expect to know a dosage, you would expect to know what to prescribe, you would know who to prescribe it to, you would expect to know what to prescribe it for," McOmber said.
She contends that none of those issues have a strong enough body of existing research for policymakers to regulate with any confidence.
McOmber said the Utah Medical Association has shown support for a state-funded $500,000 clinical study into the effects of medical cannabis.
That study, headed up by University of Utah researchers in coordination with the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative, will measure marijuana's effects on pain using three different metrics to measure whether subjects' well-being improves. The study will also examine those results among marijuana doses with differing levels of THC, the drug's psychoactive ingredient.
"That's what we need to see … is, what is the efficacy around some of what is being done? … Stories aren't what should determine medicine. Stories are what should lead to research, that then determines medicine," McOmber said.
But Schanz has touted the strength of the body of research into medical marijuana, particularly internationally, and expressed skepticism over the state study, saying last month that "the idea that Utah's going to be on the forefront of any research is laughable."
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, who co-sponsored one of two medical marijuana legalization bills that was defeated in the Utah Legislature in 2016, said it's unlikely that either the state study or the decisive poll numbers will do anything to prompt lawmakers to pass their own version of legalization in the upcoming legislative session.
The strong numbers in support of legalization, Froerer said, have "been there before and it really hasn't had much impact."
"If it looks fairly obvious that the ballot will change (things), I think it will give some legislators some pause that we should get involved with it," he said. "(But) probably most everybody will wait and see what happens with the initiative."
The LDS Church has previously expressed some reservations over medical marijuana legalization in Utah, formally opposing one of 2016's failed bills and saying in a statement in June that there are "legitimate questions regarding the benefits and risks of legalizing a drug that has not gone through the well-established and rigorous process to prove its effectiveness and safety."
The church also said in its statement at the time that passing a ballot initiative would mean the law in Utah would become at odds with federal laws.
"The difficulties of attempting to legalize a drug at the state level that is illegal under federal law cannot be overstated," LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said at the time. "Accordingly, we believe that society is best served by requiring marijuana to go through further research and the FDA approval process that all other drugs must go through before they are prescribed to patients."
Hawkins declined to comment Thursday when asked about the new poll results.
Froerer believes the only marijuana measures with much of a chance to gain traction beginning in January are those dealing with the logistics of how medical marijuana could be legally transported, distributed and kept secure in the event that it were legalized — a step that he said would be important so that the state is not caught unprepared.51 comments on this story
Even with a logistics bill, though, he said many other legislators would be nervous that passing it could be perceived as "encouraging people to vote for" legalization in November 2018. It's more likely that the state would delve deeper into logistics issues only if Utah voters pass the ballot initiative, he said.
"At that point in time, we're going to have to go back and deal with it," Froerer said. "Unfortunately that puts us behind the curve, so to speak, to deal with it."