The Mormon Church has played a quiet role in the fight against an effort to legalize medical marijuana in Utah, releasing measured statements and helping to bankroll lawsuits.
But on Thursday, leaders of the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out from behind the scenes.
“We are deeply concerned by the history of other states that have allowed medical and recreational use of this drug … and have experienced serious consequences to the health of its citizens,” Elder Jack N. Gerard, flanked by politicians, medical professionals and other church leaders, said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
His comments marked the first time an official from the Mormon Church — which has deep roots in business and politics in the state — has made a public appearance to voice opposition to Proposition 2, a ballot measure that voters will consider in November.
Some observers predict that the church will ramp up its campaign against the measure with news conferences and television and radio ads.
A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed two-thirds of voters in Utah support Proposition 2. But more public opposition from the church could change that in a state where more than 60% of residents identify as Mormon.
Thirty states already allow the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes, and supporters of the Utah measure say the effort was born out of compassion for those suffering from chronic pain.
Opponents have characterized Proposition 2 as a dangerous step on the path toward legalizing recreational pot, as has occurred in eight other states, including California.
The church’s first public stance on the issue came in April, when leaders released a brief statement lauding a memo by the Utah Medical Assn. opposing the measure. The church praised the association of doctors for “cautioning that the proposed Utah marijuana initiative would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities.”
A month later, church leaders put out a document citing legal concerns, including “significant challenges for law enforcement.”
Several prominent Mormon politicians in the state, including Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert, have also come out in opposition to Proposition 2.
On Thursday, Gerard, the high-ranking church leader, echoed the common concern that the initiative could open the way to broader legalization of marijuana and increase crime and addiction.
“We want to prevent unwanted consequences in this state,” he said.
Earlier this month, Walter Plumb, a well known local attorney and active member of the church, filed a lawsuit in state court arguing the ballot initiative would tread on his freedom of religion.
His “religious beliefs include a strict adherence to a code of health which precludes the consumption and possession of mind-altering drugs, substances and chemicals, which includes cannabis and its various derivatives,” the complaint states.
The church’s doctrine regarding health, referred to as the “Word of Wisdom,” asks members to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and “illegal drugs,” though it does not directly address medical marijuana.
The court has yet rule in the case.
DJ Schanz, a Mormon and the director of the Utah Patients Coalition, the campaign spearheading the measure, said the most recent “onslaught by the LDS Church to undermine our efforts to give patients relief is nothing new.”