On November 5th of 2018, 52.75% of Utah voters decided to vote “yes” on Proposition 2, the Medical Marijuana Initiative supporting the legalization of marijuana exclusively for medicinal use. Less than a month later, Utah legislators announced a stricter alternative than what had been passed by the voters. The new legislation was advertised as a compromise made between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and the Utah Patients Coalition, with legislators’ help. While policy changes are nothing new, the definite, and practically advertised, the involvement of Utah’s largest religious body exemplified the history of blurred separation of church and state in Utah politics.
Despite strong support, Utah has been slow to legalize any form of marijuana. Two of the starkest opponents of Prop 2 were the LDS church, also referred to as the Mormon Church, and Drug Safe Utah, a coalition of organizations against the bill. The leading backers of the proposition was the Utah Patients Coalition. The general description of the policy stated that ill patients would be given the “right to try” cannabis-based treatments through medical approval. The law would not allow approved patients to smoke marijuana, but they could use it in other means like vaping, edibles, and other forms of consumption. The proposition also allowed a person to grow cannabis plants for medical use if they were approved and lived at least 100 miles away from the nearest dispensary.
When the Medical Marijuana Initiative passed, Utah citizens assumed, that it was going to be implemented as stated in the ballot. It is not surprising that voters felt blindsided when legislators decided to draft, and pass, a bill that altered some of the key features of Prop 2. The bill approved by the Republican-dominated legislature increased the restrictions for obtaining a cannabis recommendation, does not allow personal plant growing, and bans marijuana in the edible form. These changes are significant because it makes it more difficult for patients living in rural areas to have access to medical marijuana treatment. However, the most momentous aspect of the bill is the implication that the LDS Church’s agenda takes precedence over the majority vote.
The conservative LDS Church is deeply rooted in the state’s social and political spheres despite the declining number of Mormons in heavily populated liberal areas, such as Salt Lake County. Figures show that 61.55% of Utah residents are members of the Church. However, less than half of the Mormons in Utah are believed to be active. Despite only about a fourth of the Utah population being actively Mormon, LDS members occupy almost 90% of the state Legislator as of the beginning of 2019. These figures are based on extensive research into campaign websites, social media pages, past surveys, and direct communication with lawmakers. The amount of political power LDS members hold is no secret and has caused further criticism among non-Mormon residents. The adjustments made to medical marijuana policies have shed a light on just how thin the line is between church and state.
In spite of the abundant criticism, Utah legislators have defended their decision to change the marijuana program, claiming it is a fair compromise with the Utah Patients Coalition. Representatives are arguing that it is their responsibility to act based on the needs of their constituents and, because most of the yes votes were condensed in urban areas, the passing of Prop 2 does not actually represent the overall wants of the state. Senator Curt Bramble (R-Provo) was one elected official that spoke out about his duty to act on the interest of his district rather than what the majority population wants.
Utah is one in eleven states that allows initiatives to be altered after they are passed by the people. The intention of giving legislation this additional power is to improve initiatives that have been passed because elected officials are assumed to have a better understanding of policy and what is best for the population. Legislators around the world have thwarted the popular decision for the better, but it isn’t common and often involves greater negotiation and agreement between the yes and no sides. In Colombia, the government worked together with those who opposed a peace agreement for the betterment of the county, instead of going against the opinions of those who did not want a peace agreement. Representatives are expected to make the important legislative decisions in representative democracies like the United States, but at what cost, if they are going to undermine policy initiatives that are voted on and passed?
Prop 2 is undoubtedly a form of undermining democracy in Utah for a multitude of reasons, but the clearest cut evidence is the Church’s involvement. This is something that is not new to Utah politics and is likely to continue when further issues that challenge LDS ideology arise. The changes were made under the influence of the LDS Church and their belief system. Many Mormons follow a strict health guide. The Word of Wisdom, as it is called, is likely the source of anti-marijuana ideology. It also says they shouldn’t drink coffee or alcohol. The Church authorities’ views against alcohol influenced the heavy control of the production and distribution of it in the state, which is reflective of the strict guidelines applied to the new marijuana program.
The problem in Utah is the one-sided religious ideology that has clearly influenced how legislation acts. While strong claims can be made as to why changing a bill is constitutional, the issue is that those arguments are one-sided to favor the majority. Statewide votes are supposed to act in the interest of the population, not specific districts. The number of Mormons in Utah is also declining, but the representation is changing at a slower pace. Regardless of the motivations behind changing the bill, it only seems right for Utah voters to approve of the new policies before they are implemented. It is the responsibility of Utah leaders to uphold the American creed of “for the people, by the people,” in order to foster the citizens’ confidence in democracy.
*Photo by Public Domain “Salt Lake City Temple in Utah”