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As Libertas Institute has become a leading force in the effort to legalize medical marijuana in Utah—the backyard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—I’ve been paying attention more closely to the experiences and thoughts of Mormons around the country who use, or desire to use, cannabis as a medical treatment option.
Nearly half of the 50 states have now legalized cannabis for medicinal and/or recreational uses, thereby defying federal law criminalizing possession and use of the plant. This patchwork of policies has produced a similarly heterogenous set of experiences by church members.
The fundamental question to be addressed by followers of Christ who seek to keep His commandments is whether the use of this plant for medicinal purposes is an acceptable action. One litmus test used to help determine the answer to that question is the Word of Wisdom, commonly known as the health standard to which Mormons adhere.
This health standard—first revealed merely as a “greeting; not by commandment or constraint” and later turned into a commandment—makes no mention of cannabis. It does say that “all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man… to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.”
The concern over cannabis is often irrational; many Mormons have no problem with doctors prescribing, and patients using, highly toxic opioids that lead to high rates of chemical dependency. Utah is well known for the large percentage of people dying from overdosing on prescription drugs. These aren’t drug addicts in the familiar sense—they are in too many cases upstanding individuals who find themselves needing pain relief and being sent down a spiral of dependency and self-destruction because opium is societally (and legally) accepted, whereas cannabis is not. An average of 21 Utahns die every month from overdosing on opioids.
The fact that a few politicians have decreed cannabis to be legally verboten has led many in the church’s lay clergy to ecclesiastically punish their congregants who have used it, even if under a doctor’s recommendation. I am aware of cases, for example, in which Church members who use cannabis for strictly medical purposes have had to surrender their temple recommend upon their bishop’s demand.
The gatekeeping questions that must be answered in the affirmative in order to enter the temple include two that may relate to the use of cannabis: “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?” and “Do your keep the Word of Wisdom?” The Church’s official handbook, which bishops use to determine the worthiness of each member, encumbers the scriptural language of the Word of Wisdom with additional instructions that state, “Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.” Contextualized this way, the health code becomes tainted with legal implications; one is no longer allowed to use wholesome herbs that “God hath ordained” unless certain legislative and bureaucratic bodies have given their blessing. Doctors have additionally become placed by church leaders as mandatory intermediaries between a person and his or her own health treatment.
Taking medical cannabis thus introduces some uncertainty in determining how to appropriately answer the question regarding the Word of Wisdom. As for the other question, the interviewee can theoretically answer in the affirmative to the extent that the person is not lying about their use of cannabis—even if it is “against the law.”
In at least one area, would-be disciples of Christ who are using cannabis as a medical treatment are being denied the opportunity to be baptized at all. A mission president in Portland Oregon instructed the missionaries he’s in charge of that “no individual who smokes marijuana for ‘medicinal purposes’ can be baptized a member of the Church in this mission.” His reasoning relies upon a faulty—though prevalent—interpretation of the 12th Article of Faith, as well as a misinterpretation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It is quite sad to see priesthood holders subjecting a person’s spiritual progress to the political decrees of (often corrupt) agents of the government. (This becomes especially worrisome when considering the selective approach used; people violating immigration laws, for example, are baptized and welcomed into the faith.)
Having become so deeply involved in the effort to legalize medical cannabis in Utah, I have heard far too many stories about dependence and death, or suffering and side effects from law-abiding citizens who have relegated themselves to using dangerous or ineffective remedies to help treat or alleviate their conditions. Some of these people have confided in me their secret use of cannabis to provide relief when nothing else has worked—and some have been openly admitting their use of this plant. That such people are being pitted between much needed physical relief and good standing within their church is a tragic frustration that will hopefully soon be resolved through educating ecclesiastical leadership about its benefits, and taking politics out of what should only be a medical consideration.