LDS Church: Legal analysis 'raises grave concerns' about Utah medical marijuana initiative

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SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church on Friday released a legal analysis it commissioned of a proposed Utah medical marijuana initiative, saying the report "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 judgement," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also said in its statement.

The church statement says:

"The proposed Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative is a matter of great controversy in this state. The negative effects and consequences of marijuana use on individuals, families and society at large are well-known. There are also those who claim that it has medicinal benefits for those in some circumstances.

"Accordingly, the church asked a Salt Lake City law firm for a legal analysis of the proposed initiative to be submitted to the voters next fall. We wanted to know what the initiative would actually do, if adopted. … That memorandum raises grave concerns about this initiative and the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted. We invite all to read the attached memorandum and to make their own judgment."

Legal analysis

The 31-point analysis referred to by the LDS Church was completed by Salt Lake law firm Kirton McConkie. Among the report's assertions:

• The initiative would require the state "to destroy records of cannabis sales after 60 days, which will hamper law enforcement."

• The measure would make marijuana "the only serious controlled substance in Utah sold for alleged medicinal purposes without a prescription and outside of licensed pharmacies."

• Illnesses that would qualify a person for a medical cannabis card include "conditions that are difficult to diagnose and can afflict many people in varying degrees, such as 'chronic pain,' which by some estimates includes over 15 (percent) of the population."

• A large amount of marijuana could be recommended by a small group of doctors. (The analysis claims that about 70 percent of such recommendations in Colorado were "at one point" made by fewer than 15 physicians.)

• The initiative "doesn't require physicians … to have any training or experience with the effects of marijuana."

• Marijuana use among youth, per federal research, is "generally significantly higher in states that have legalized recreational and medicinal use."

• The initiative would allow medical cannabis cardholders more than 100 miles from a cannabis dispensary "to grow their own marijuana" and there isn't an enforcement mechanism to ensure they don't possess more than what is otherwise the legal limit.

• Under the initiative, a doctor could "routinely rubber stamp recommendations for a medical cannabis card after a brief visit, or mistakenly recommend marijuana use under conditions where it would do harm," and be legally exempted from civil and criminal liabilities, as well as licensure discipline.

• Marijuana possession would be legalized "before medical cannabis cards are distributed," meaning a person in suspicion of having it for recreational purposes can demonstrate they legally possess it if they are able to show they would be eligible for such a card if they were in circulation.

• The initiative "appears to narrow liability for driving under the influence of marijuana" to include only a person who ingests marijuana while operating a vehicle.

• Possessing marijuana could "affect (an) immigrant if ... he or she applies for a green card, applies for citizenship, or travels outside the United States."

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Initiative campaign response

In a response to the LDS Church statement Friday, Utah Patients Coalition initiative campaign director DJ Schanz said the church's language about "serious adverse consequences" can also be applied to the dilemmas faced by patients without access to legal medical use of marijuana.

"Current law has 'serious adverse consequences' for thousands of sick patients who are either illegally using cannabis to improve their health, or those who want to but suffer to obey the law," Schanz said in a prepared statement.

Schanz and other supporters of the initiative have argued that it is among the most conservative medical marijuana measures in the United States in terms of what types of marijuana use it allows and how an ill person can qualify for it.

"Our tightly controlled proposal — one of the most conservative in the country — preserves the doctor-patient relationship and ensures that those who need this God-given plant for medicinal purposes can use it without fear of criminal punishment," he said Friday.

Schanz has said the measure is based on sound research from around the world, indicating marijuana is a safe and medically beneficial substance. On Friday, he said he welcomes a robust dialogue about the initiative.

"We anticipate a healthy debate in the public square about the merits of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act leading up to November's vote," Schanz said.

What the initiative does

The initiative — which would go before voters this fall if a petition to put it on the ballot is certified as having enough signatures — would allow patients with several illnesses, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Crohn's disease, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple sclerosis, to apply for a medical cannabis card with the help of a recommending physician.

People with legally defined exceptionally rare diseases could also qualify, as could a person with chronic pain if their doctor "determines (they are) at risk of becoming chemically dependent on, or overdosing, on opiate-based pain medication."

A physician-led Compassionate Use Board established by the initiative would also have the authority to make exceptions for a person who does not otherwise qualify.

Physicians would be permitted to recommend marijuana to no more than 20 percent of their patients, but oncologists, anesthesiologists, psychiatrists, gastroenterologists and neurologists would be among the doctors exempted from that requirement.

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UMA opposition

State data last updated Friday shows the Utah Patients Coalition has collected 155,381 signatures on the petition to put the measure on the ballot, and has met required thresholds in enough state Senate districts to do so.

However, a signature removal campaign is also underway to try to disqualify the measure. That push is led by a newly formed political issues committee called Drug Safe Utah, which was organized by the Utah Medical Association and conservative advocacy group Utah Eagle Forum.

The Utah Medical Association has been a vocal opponent of the initiative, arguing that not enough is known about how to prescribe marijuana with predictability. The association has also claimed the measure is too broad and would ultimately make it easy to use marijuana recreationally without legal consequences.

However, not all Utah medical groups have opposed the initiative, and some members of the Utah Medical Association who support it have taken issue with the organization's public stance.

Jennifer Dailey-Provost, who is executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians but was speaking only on behalf of herself at the time, commended the initiative at a May 8 press conference as "patient-centered" and warned that "no organization in this state speaks for every physician."

Dailey-Provost later explained that as an organization, the Utah Academy of Family Physicians has taken a neutral position on the initiative.

Michelle McComber, Drug Safe Utah president and Utah Medical Association CEO, praised the LDS Church's statement Friday, saying it backed up the "things we've been saying all along."

"We think this reinforces everything Drug Safe Utah has been trying to educate the public about," McComber said.

Last month, the First Presidency of the LDS Church issued a statement commending the Utah Medical Association for its stance on the issue, saying "we respect the wise counsel of the medical doctors of Utah."

The church was referring to a statement made in late March by the Utah Medical Association in which the trade group said it was "unequivocally" against the initiative and argued "the initiative is not medical."

Initiative campaign

In other news Friday, the Utah Patients Coalition published a letter it had sent to the Utah Medical Association and others associated with Drug Safe Utah, warning that the coalition is considering suing in court over "your effort to fraudulently obtain the withdrawal of signatures from the ... petition."

The campaign cited a pair of videos of canvassers that it has called categorically dishonest, as well as a flyer that surfaced containing instructions for canvassers that Drug Safe Utah later renounced.

If enough signatures are removed to disqualify the initiative from the ballot, "we will hold these people accountable for their fraudulent activity and seek judicial intervention to make sure these illegal efforts do not succeed," Schanz said in a release Friday.

Drug Safe Utah has likewise cried foul in recent days against the Utah Patients Coalition, filing a formal complaint with the lieutenant governor's office this week alleging that the campaign had offered to buy signature removal forms that had already been filled out by voters but not yet submitted for processing.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's office declined to comment on the issue Friday.

Clarification: Remarks made by Jennifer Dailey-Provost on May 8 commending the ballot initiative were intended as a personal stance and not in her capacity as executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians.


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