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Church leader sees confusion over medical marijuana initiative, urges Utahns to vote no

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SALT LAKE CITY — Voters might be confused over the medical marijuana ballot initiative and a proposed legislative compromise, a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Friday.

Sister Lisa Harkness, first counselor in the Primary general presidency, said she has talked to many people over the past couple of weeks who think the legislative proposal has replaced Proposition 2 on the ballot. She said she has had to explain that is not the case.

"Proposition 2 is still the same. We still oppose it because it does not provide the adequate safeguards for children, youth and our communities," said Sister Harkness, who urged Utahns to vote against the initiative.

Sister Harkness, Utah PTA health commissioner DeAnn Kettenring and Paula Cook, a University of Utah addiction medicine and family medicine doctor, met with reporters Friday to discuss the harmful effects of marijuana on young people.

The church supports draft legislation for dispensing medical marijuana in Utah that state lawmakers say they will consider in the weeks after Tuesday's election regardless of whether Proposition 2 passes or fails.

"We sense an urgency to make something happen to relieve pain and suffering. We understand the work will not be done after the vote this coming Tuesday. There's still a lot of work to be done," Sister Harkness said.

Proposition 2 proponent Christine Stenquist said talk of harm to children is a "red herring" meant to scare people.

"It's not a free-for-all. This is certainly not a recreational bill at all," said Stenquist, president of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education or TRUCE.

Stenquist called opponents' talk of people conflating Proposition 2 and the proposed legislation — which she calls not a compromise but a "replacement" bill — "weird messaging."

"At this point to keep the static down for voters, just vote for Prop. 2, and the legislators said they've got it, so don't worry," she said.

Kettenring said the PTA believes medicinal cannabis can help some patients but questions whether the initiative would do it in a safe way for children. Young people today, she said, perceive marijuana as harmless, and any perceived decline in risk would result in more use.

"We want this to be available for those that need it, but we do not want it to be available to those that do not need it because it will hurt the developing brain," she said.

The PTA has not taken a position on the compromise bill, Kettenring said.

History has shown that legalizing a medication like opiates that people think might be a "wonder drug" hasn't always worked out, she said.

"And now look at what we're dealing with because we didn't have the research that we needed 30 years ago," Kettenring said.

Cook, president-elect of the Utah chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said she has something to say about marijuana "based on the evidence only, not to opine" about Proposition 2 or the proposed legislation.

The ability to study medicinal use of marijuana has been limited because of its classification as a Schedule 1 drug.

"We don't have great data to back it up. We don't really know a lot about where it is really useful," Cook said. "For what it's being advertised as, kind of a panacea for a lot of different things, especially chronic pain, we just don't have a lot of data."

But, she said, researchers know a lot about the harms of marijuana, particularly among young people whose brains are still developing up to age 25. There is a myth that marijuana is not dangerous or addictive, she said.

Cook said the "fallout" from legalized marijuana is evident in other states, including increased toddler poisonings and use among children. She said it's "quite alarming" marijuana is the drug of choice for adolescents over tobacco and alcohol.

"To think that won't happen here is naive," Cook said.

Stenquist argues that more people are reporting those effects in other states and there are consequences from adults leaving their medications out, whether it be cannabis or other drugs.

"It is the responsibility of the parents and the adults to manage that just like we do pharmaceutical drugs," she said. "I don't want to discount anybody's concerns because, as a community, we all have these concerns. But let's not just throw fear out into the wind and not back up some logic behind it."

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Paula Cook urged Utahns to vote against Proposition 2. Cook took no stance on the proposition.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.


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