SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined a broad coalition of medical professionals, community leaders and lawmakers Thursday to urge defeat of Utah's medical marijuana initiative.
But the coalition also said it does not "object to marijuana derivatives being used in medicinal form — so long as appropriate controls and safeguards are in place."
"The church does not object to the medicinal use of marijuana, if doctor-prescribed, in dosage form, from a licensed pharmacy," said Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy with the church, often called by some the Mormon church.
However, Elder Gerard said the church is "deeply concerned" that the ballot initiative does not contain "proper controls" on marijuana use, and also has worries about other states having "experienced serious consequences to the health and safety" of their residents due to marijuana laws that are too permissive.
Elder Gerard implored Utahns to vote no on the initiative.
"We call on lawmakers, patients and community leaders to come together to find an appropriate solution to benefit all Utahns," he said.
The church also sent an email to its members throughout Utah Thursday afternoon, urging them to vote against the initiative.
"Its proponents assert that it will make medical marijuana available to those suffering with debilitating pain and other infirmities. However, in truth it goes much further, creating a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls," says the email signed by Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy over the church's Utah area.
"… We urge voters of Utah to vote no on Proposition 2, and join us in a call to state elected officials to promptly work with medical experts, patients and community leaders to find a solution that will work for all Utahns, without the harmful effects that will come to pass if Proposition 2 becomes law."
The Utah Medical Association, as well as Drug Safe Utah — a political issues committee formed to directly oppose the initiative — were also on hand Thursday to announce the new coalition and criticize the ballot measure as a bad solution for Utahns.
Both of those groups have previously denounced the initiative as a loosely regulated policy measure making recreational use possible.
The initiative campaign, called the Utah Patients Coalition, panned Thursday's announcement as a new way to dress up old arguments, which it says the state's voters aren't convinced by.
"The marijuana initiative appearing as Proposition 2 on the ballot this November does not strike the appropriate balance in ensuring safe and reasonable access for patients while also protecting youth and preventing other societal harms," Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber said in a statement on behalf of the whole coalition.
"We are firmly opposed to Proposition 2. However, we do not object to marijuana derivatives being used in medicinal form — so long as appropriate controls and safeguards are in place to ensure vulnerable populations are protected and access is limited to truly medicinal purposes."
Also listed as members of the new coalition are the Utah Episcopal Diocese, the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart, U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney, the Utah Hospital Association, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
The Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, thanked "those who actually took it upon themselves to actually do the work to get this proposition in front of us in November," and those who voted in favor of it.
"I believe that it will advance the conversation that we needed to have, or couldn't have before, so I'm very grateful for that," the Rt. Rev. Hayashi said.
He said he had felt torn because of his desire to help patients who could benefit from medical marijuana, but his reservations about the initiative itself prompted him to favor caution on the issue.
"I'd like to vote 'yes, but I have some concerns.' Unfortunately casting a vote does not allow that. … So as a person who at this point in time is sort of stuck in between, then I have to say there are significant enough concerns for me to oppose Proposition 2 as it stands," he said.
"But I will pledge that going forward, I will work for the passage of something that will allow for medical cannabis to be available to those who could benefit from it."
Elder Gerard was asked whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to see expedited action on the part of state lawmakers in addressing medical marijuana legalization.
"We … call on the leadership — state leaders, community leaders, and others — to step forward promptly, in a proactive way, to address the very real concerns, particularly children suffering (and) those who suffer from pain and affliction," Gerard responded.
"From the church's standpoint, our No. 1. priority as followers of Jesus Christ is to follow his example, to assist those that are afflicted, to try to relieve human pain and suffering."
More coalition members
Other members of the new coalition include Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies; Mike Leavitt, former Utah governor and secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services; prominent real estate developer and philanthropist Kem Gardner; Karen Huntsman, wife of the late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.; the Utah Sheriffs' Association; 12 current state senators; and 21 members of the Utah House of Representatives.
Advocacy organizations that are longtime opponents of the initiative such as the Sutherland Institute and Utah Eagle Forum joined the coalition with newcomers such as the Utah PTA and Salt Lake Chamber.
Former supporters of the initiative also gave remarks Thursday saying they support different routes to medical marijuana legalization.
Gardner called those who have signed on in opposition to the initiative "an amazing list of concerned citizens."
"We oppose it for a variety of reasons. For me, the message is simple: I'm not opposed to scientifically based medical marijuana sold in drug stores or state drug facilities, but the proposition means marijuana brownies and gummy bears in corner pot shops," Gardner said. "I have 30 grandchildren to protect."
Noticeably absent from the listed coalition members is Gov. Gary Herbert, who in the past has said the initiative "has significant flaws" and that he would "actively oppose" it. Herbert's office said Thursday he supports the new coalition's efforts and will be using his own platform to oppose the initiative as Election Day approaches.
When reached for comment, Sen. Mike Lee spokesman Conn Carroll told the Deseret News that Lee, R-Utah, "does not weigh in" on state ballot initiatives. "It's up to the people of Utah to make the decision on this medical marijuana initiative," he said.
The office of Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said he was in South America on government business, but would make a statement on the issue of medical marijuana in coming days. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Mia Love did not respond to requests for comment.
DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition campaign promoting the initiative, contended that the opposition shown Thursday represents "nothing new."
"These are the same players who have been opposed to us from the very beginning," Schanz told the Deseret News. "Just because we renamed the Delta Center (as) Energy Solutions Arena, it doesn't mean it's not the … same thing over and over."
Christine Stenquist, the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, said the alternatives suggested by members of the anti-initiative coalition are unoriginal and disingenuous in light of prohibitive federal laws preventing marijuana from being prescribed or distributed like other drugs.
"They didn't really offer a solution, did they?" she said.
Stenquist said some of the groups that presented themselves as the voice of the middle ground on Thursday are the same groups that launched a signature removal campaign in an attempt to stop voters from having a say in the first place, and that the coalition also includes state legislators who have failed to pass substantial medical marijuana legalization laws.
"And this is the coalition patients should be trusting?" Stenquist asked. "That is a tough pill to swallow."
The newly energized opposition doesn't change anything for supporters of the initiative, Stenquist said. "We're still here, we're still fighting."
Utah House Democrats also issued a statement in favor of the initiative Thursday, saying the Utah Legislature was slow to pass comprehensive legalization laws it would have preferred, and now lawmakers "must respect Utahns' right to petition their government through ballot initiative."
"We appreciate concerns that it is not perfect, but if Proposition 2 passes, then the Legislature will still have the ability to modify and improve the legislation in the months and years afterward," the group said in a statement.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, the initiative's largest in-state donor, responded to the announcement of an opposing coalition by tweeting that "other states have medical programs far broader" with "less restrictions" pertaining to marijuana.
Boyack also said coalition members were asking for regulations on marijuana distribution, such as ensuring it goes through a pharmacy, that federal laws make "impossible."
Better Utah, a left-leaning policy advocacy organization, said in a statement on Twitter that "many of those advocating against the proposition are using overblown and disingenuous arguments to prevent its adoption."
History of criticism
Since the initiative's inception, the Utah Medical Association has been one of the measure's most vocal critics and has argued that not enough is currently known about how to prescribe marijuana in order to justify legalizing its medical use.
The Utah Patients Coalition has in turn argued that research into medical marijuana is robust enough to justify giving patients suffering with pain an opportunity to use it. Initiative backers have also said its regulations on medical marijuana use are among the most rigorous proposed in the country.
The initiative generally permits patients with several illnesses, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder, to be recommended a medical cannabis card by a physician. Cardholders could then purchase up to a certain amount of marijuana at a state-licensed dispensary.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints earlier this year expressed reservations about the medical marijuana initiative, saying in a statement in May that a legal analysis it commissioned regarding the measure "raises grave concerns" over "the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted."
"We invite all to read (the analysis) and to make their own judgment," the church's statement said at the time.
In April, the First Presidency of the church also issued a statement praising the Utah Medical Association for an earlier statement that the trade organization had made opposing the initiative.
"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," the First Presidency said at the time.