SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want the Utah Legislature to legalize medical marijuana in a special session by the end of 2018.
"We'd like to see it done this year, in a special session this year," said Marty Stephens, the church's director of community and governmental relations. "We'd like to see these people that have needs — truly medical needs — we'd like to see them be able to get access to these medications in an appropriate, safe manner."
But the church does not believe the medical marijuana initiative on November's ballot is the right way to make medical marijuana legal.
The church has joined a broad coalition of medical, law enforcement, educational, religious and other leaders who are urging Utahns to go to the ballot on Nov. 6 to reject Proposition 2. That medical marijuana initiative doesn't protect children, they say. They also say it doesn't resolve unintended consequences that have afflicted medical marijuana programs in other states like Washington and Colorado.
"Proposition 2 is not the right answer," said Elder Jack N. Gerard, executive director of the church's public affairs department. "We're hopeful that as people better understand what is in Proposition 2, that they will join with us to find an appropriate answer in a timely way."
But Latter-day Saint leaders also don't want pain-ridden patients to wait any longer for the relief that medical marijuana can provide.
"There is urgency," said Elder Gerard, 60, who became a General Authority Seventy in March. "This isn't 'let's wait till next year to have a conversation.' It needs to be dealt with soon. There's an urgency to accomplish this. … With this coalition, we're calling on public officials to act and act promptly."
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokesman, Paul Edwards, said the governor would consider a special session under the right circumstances, but believes it is too early to consider one.
"The governor only calls a special session when we have near-consensus on legislative action and language," Edwards said Sunday. "It would be premature to say anything about a special session at this point because there's no such bill that people are looking at right now."
Herbert announced his opposition to Proposition 2 back in March and said he would welcome an alternative. Edwards and others said several different proposals are at the conceptual stage.
"If we see something where we coalesce around what looks like good policy for the state, the governor is more than happy to take a look at that opportunity," Edwards said. "His primary concern is getting to good policy about medical marijuana that allows patients access to compounds that may help them while also protecting public health and public safety."
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, agreed with the governor that he would have to wait to see a serious proposal before he could support a special session. King opposes Proposition 2 but said he plans to vote for it and work in the Legislature to fix it afterward.
"Proposition 2 is flawed, in some ways very flawed," he said, "but I'm voting for it because if we vote it down, I think the likelihood that the state Legislature will come back and put in place meaningful medical marijuana is slim and none."
King questioned whether a largely conservative Republican Legislature would pass a meaningful medical marijuana law immediately after voters rejected one in an initiative. He would need to see a specific, concrete proposal before mail-in ballots are sent to voters in a month. A special session of the Legislature would have to take place in November or the first week or two of December.
While King suggested the coalition take the law from one of the 30 states that has legalized medical marijuana and use it as a template, pointing out what it liked and didn't like, Elder Gerard said the church would like to see Utah set a national example with a bill that could be used to pass medical marijuana in any state.
Multiple supporters of the initiative have said they don't have much faith in the Utah Legislature. One of the main reasons they pushed for a ballot initiative is because they say the Legislature has failed to act meaningfully on medical marijuana issues.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often known as the Mormon church, has aligned itself with a broad coalition against Proposition 2 that includes the Utah Medical Association and other doctors, the Utah PTA and other parents and teachers, multiple law enforcement groups, the Utah Episcopal Diocese and the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake.
Elder Gerard said the church wants all parties to come together swiftly to craft a specific, serious, landmark proposal. He said it wants a solution like the landmark Utah Compact on immigration reform and the church's Fairness for All approach that was at the core of a 2015 Utah nondiscrimination law that extended protection to LGBT people in housing and employment while also protecting religious rights.
He expressed surprise that headlines have focused on the church's opposition to Proposition 2 and not the first-ever public statement that it accepts medicinal marijuana as a matter of church policy.
In fact, the church's urgent public support of medical marijuana has cheered Enedina Stanger Ramos, an active church member who suffers from chronic, excruciating pain due to multiple medical conditions.
"I don't understand why every (church) member isn't jumping up and shouting for joy and screaming, 'Hallelujah,'" she said. "This is exactly what we've been praying for and hoping for for so many years. This has been the plea that we've had for so long. It has been an answer to prayers."
Elder Gerard said the church's public support of medical marijuana use is a reflection of the leadership of President Russell M. Nelson, a renowned heart surgeon who became the faith's 17th president and prophet in January.
"It's really remarkable the Lord's chosen prophet at this time has great empathy and understanding," Elder Gerard said, adding that President Nelson understands human pain and suffering "not only as a loving, compassionate leader of the church, but he also understands it more from the medical perspective.
"That's why I think it really is quite significant that we've come out to support a broader coalition to work for appropriate, medicinal marijuana use with appropriate safeguards," he said.
The only time the church has publicly supported medical marijuana before now was in February 2016, when leaders said only that they had no objection to a Utah bill that would have legalized cannabidiol, or CBD oil. That bill failed.
While church leaders now support legalized medical marijuana, they say Proposition 2 is a serious threat to health and public safety, especially to Utah teens and children, because they believe it would make marijuana generally available for recreational use with few controls.