When Madsen first introduced a medical marijuana bill in 2015, a church representative showed up to his office to inform him of its opposition.
“They came in and told me, ‘We’re opposing your bill.’ There was no discussion,” said Madsen, the grandson of former LDS prophet Ezra Taft Benson who served as a senator for ten years and remains an active church member.
“[They said] ‘we just came by as a courtesy call to tell you we’re going … in to Senate leadership, and we’re going to tell him to do everything he can to kill the bill,’” he explained.
Despite that opposition, the bill passed the Senate, but it went nowhere in the House.
Current Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers said the church has never asked him to kill a piece of legislation. Still, he explained that the church does step in when they’re concerned about an issue and, he acknowledged, they got involved on marijuana.
“The general stance, where the church comes out and says, ‘We’re opposed to this or you know we favor this’ … it happens less than you think,” Vickers said in an interview.
After three years of failed legislative efforts, cannabis advocates took the issue to voters. The church initially opposed the ballot measure, and on Aug. 23, 2018, church leaders sent an “official church announcement” to members in Utah urging them to vote against the measure.
In May 2018, support for medical marijuana in Utah was at 72 percent. But opposition from the church and other groups significantly chipped away at its approval so that by October, support had dipped to 51 percent.
Behind the scenes, however, the church was working to forge a compromise that would result in a medical bill they could live with. In an email to medical marijuana advocacy group TRUCE on June 7, 2018 obtained by POLITICO, church lobbyist Marty Stephens asked the group to work with him on creating a list of key components needed in a medical bill, and offered to take the document “to Church leaders, the UMA, the [Salt Lake City] Chamber, legislative leaders and the Governor’s office.”
The bill that emerged from the compromise was more conservative than the referendum approved by voters. Patients can’t smoke marijuana flower — they can only vaporize it — and there is a lower monthly purchase limit that some advocates say is barely enough for patients with severe conditions.
Beyond dolling out medical marijuana cards, doctors have the ability to prescribe specific amounts below the state-mandated monthly limits, and to limit patients to a specific type of product — edibles only, for example.
Fewer business licenses and qualifying conditions were allowed in the compromise bill. Every dispensary — or pharmacy, as they’re called in Utah — must also have a licensed pharmacist on hand to check each purchase against the statewide tracking system and the doctor’s prescription.
Vickers, a pharmacist by trade, was the lead sponsor of the bill and was closely involved in crafting it.
“People that were supportive were looking at it as a medicine — how can it help people?” Vickers explained. “Because our conservative religious principles also tell us that we want to help people.”
Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute, a Utah-based libertarian think tank, said the church’s position was focused on making sure the bill did not create loopholes that might allow for recreational use of marijuana. “They felt that our medical cannabis initiative was actually recreational — that was the nature of the opposition language during the campaign, and it was what they communicated in private conversation.”
Medical programs in states like Oregon and California have earned a reputation for making it very easy to obtain a medical marijuana card. In Oklahoma, almost 10 percent of the overall state population possesses a medical marijuana card — nearly the rate of adult recreational use in some legal states.