What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
In February I found myself in a private meeting with the infamous “home teachers”—the somewhat pejorative nickname given to the two lobbyists employed by the LDS Church to influence politics in Utah.
The meeting was in the office of Senator Madsen, who was sponsoring the medical marijuana bill that Libertas Institute was helping with and supporting. The senator and I sat together with these two church representatives who informed us that they had just come from the office of the senate president, conveying to him their opposition to our bill. (Their going straight to leadership is a common tactic to help ensure the church’s will is carried out in Utah government; they visited the House Speaker as well.)
As you might imagine, the meeting was rather tense. We had clearly anticipated that the LDS Church would not support the legislation, but were hopeful that they would remain neutral rather than opposing it. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
So I took advantage of the opportunity to inquire why they opposed the bill—one that would clearly help thousands of people in Utah, and which was more tightly regulated than any other state, where the Church had not weighed in on, let alone opposed, any other program.
No answer was provided—only that they were following orders and delivering the message. Noting that “we’re not science experts on this,” the lobbyists said that two apostles, who are physicians (Elders Nelson and Renlund), believe that “the science isn’t settled” and that the other leaders felt that the bill was “too broad, too loose, too much.”
When Senator Madsen asked who had presented what material that led to the decision, one of the lobbyists replied that “the church has attorneys who evaluate these things.”
I asked if there would be an opportunity for us to address an apostle or another leader to present the scientific evidence in favor of medicinal cannabis use, and we were flatly and immediately told no.
When I inquired as to whether the Church was opposing the bill because it allowed for cannabis that contained THC, they affirmatively replied that that was “a significant part” of the reason for their opposition. So Senator Madsen asked if the Church opposes members being prescribed Marinol, an FDA-approved synthetic substance that is 100% THC. Awkward silence ensued; the lobbyists had no response. Finally, they suggested that going through the “FDA process” is what made the latter okay, while other forms of cannabis would be frowned upon by the Church for circumventing the FDA.
Quick tangent: Church scripture holds that anything “more or less” than the Constitution “cometh of evil.” There is no constitutional clause that justifies and authorizes the existence of the FDA, let alone one that allows the federal government to prohibit the use of any substance for medical reasons that has not received the blessing of this federal agency. You can draw your own conclusions, then, as to church leaders deferring to the unconstitutional (and therefore evil?) FDA.
After some tense conversation, I slowed things down a bit by addressing the home teachers directly. Here’s what I said, verbatim:
It’s tough because we’ve put a lot of work into this bill. We feel it is more tightly controlled than in any other state where church members are able to use cannabis.
This opposition could, as you well know, kill the bill. Just yesterday, there was a Mormon mother in Oregon who had been giving cannabis to her daughter who has a malfunctioning pituitary gland. She had to return to Utah, where she lived. Somebody reported on her that she was using it for her daughter who has thrived under a regimen of cannabis under a doctor’s approval in Oregon. And DCFS showed up at her door yesterday. She’s now under investigation. [She fled the state that same day to avoid having her daughter taken from her.]
For my part—and I’m sorry to get a little emotional—I know hundreds of people who are in this predicament. This bill would help them. It would be very tightly controlled. But the bill stands a good chance of dying with the church’s opposition, and these people are going to continue to face the criminal justice system. I think that’s wrong.
My remarks were not addressed; they provided no response, other than nodding their heads when I noted that the Church’s opposition would likely kill the bill.
I also noted that “every other organization that has opposed the bill has walked us through it saying ‘here’s what you can do to address our concerns,’ and we’ve been very forthright in doing all of that.” But for the previous ten minutes, the Church’s representatives had been unwilling to address specific questions or provide any detail that would remove their opposition to the bill. “What can we do?” I implored one final time, wondering what amendments would alleviate the Church’s concerns.
“We can try to give you more, certainly,” we were told. “We can circle back.” The meeting ended.
After some phone tag, that “circling back” happened roughly one week later. We were told on that phone call, quite simply, that they had nothing more to give us. The conversation was over.
While our meeting left me quite frustrated, I felt more sadness than anything. Thousands of Utahns would be threatened with fines and jail time for using a plant to improve their lives—to become a functioning mother or father to their children, a productive member of society, and a person with increased quality of life.
And the emissaries sent to represent my own Church were unapologetic and indifferent to the plight of these church members. It was very sad for me.
Many people have wanted to know what happened in this meeting; I have been asked many times since the legislative session by friends and strangers for more detail. I had planned, without much strong feeling on the matter, to not disclose detail publicly. The reason I have changed my mind is the recent publication of purported “leaks” from a disaffected church employee. I’ve not paid these revelations much attention, as the summaries I read indicated that they are rather benign, and merely reveal a large organization managing things prudently. Good.
The subject? Marijuana.
The presentation provided by Elder Gerrit Gong is an update on how legislatures and voters in several states had decided on questions relating to marijuana in the months and years prior to the 2010 meeting.
Noting that not all arguments raised in the debate over marijuana merit response, Elder Gong advised the brethren that some arguments “gained credibility” because they were not challenged. As an example, Elder Gong cited the “far-fetched argument” that “unlike alcohol, no deaths are directly attributable to marijuana use.” On occasion, he said, “some of these things need to be refuted.”
Elder Gong addressed the shifting public perception of marijuana legalization, showing that polling has changed drastically over time, leading to steady, increased support. He remarked that “we sometimes focus on the high intensity battle, but we also have to make sure that we win the long term war”—presumably referring to the “war” of maintaining the criminalization of marijuana, which has had horrendous consequences, filling prisons, forcibly removing children from families, empowering drug cartels, and imposing significant costs on taxpayers without any viable return.
The presentation notes that the Church “generally defines” the Word of Wisdom “to include tea, coffee, alcohol, and illegal drugs.” This is consistent not only with the conventional interpretation of that revelation, but also the Official Handbook which states, under the section titled “Word of Wisdom” (my emphasis added):
The only official interpretation of “hot drinks” (D&C 89:9) in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term “hot drinks” means tea and coffee.
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.
Of course, nothing in Doctrine and Covenants 89 (the section from which we derive the Word of Wisdom) states anything about hinging God’s law of health upon the ever-changing majoritarian votes of legislative bodies or ballot initiatives. A product being classified as “legal” or “illegal” through democratic action does not change its material composition or the beneficial qualities it may provide to our bodies.
Indeed, Elder Gong himself noted that church members should be “clearly reminded that popular classification of a substance, as legal or illegal, is not what determines obedience to the Word of Wisdom.” Unfortunately, he was using the inverse of the argument—that the legalization of marijuana does not mean its use allows one to still be in compliance with the Word of Wisdom. The flip side, of course, is that one is not necessarily violating it merely because some politicians decades previous decided to prohibit the use of cannabis.
It bears repeating: the Word of Wisdom contains no language that suggests that God frowns upon a person for consuming a substance that has been banned by a government. The “illegal substances” benchmark is one of modern creation, and without any scriptural (or, I think, logical) support.
If anything, one can quite reasonably argue that the use of cannabis is not only not banned by the Word of Wisdom, but that it is in fact explicitly condoned. Rather than handbook codification of conventional interpretation, here’s what the text actually states (again with my emphasis):
And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
Those who have researched the components of the cannabis plant, and their supplement to the endocannabinoid system within our bodies, are, like me, in awe at the wonderful properties this wholesome herb can provide. I praise God that he has “ordained” it for the use of man, as I have seen it substantially benefit and improve the lives of many of my friends and family.
Parenthetically, one could argue that the “spirit” of the Word of Wisdom centers more around abstention from addictive substances, encouraging us to be masters of our bodies and not become subject to the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (D&C 89:4). And yet, just this weekend in his conference address, President Dieter Uchtdorf admitted to heavy consumption of “many liters of a diet soda that shall remain nameless,” to much laughter from the worldwide audience. Obedient Latter-day Saints may abstain from alcohol, but many are heavily addicted to Diet Coke and other drinks, which govern their lives and alter their behavior and mood. Yet these remain in good standing with the Church and are of no apparent concern. These sweetened drinks are, after all, a legal substance.
And then there’s prescription drugs, including opioid painkillers that lead to the deaths of 24 Utahns on average each month. These are legal, and not a single bishop has initiated disciplinary proceedings for their use. Hundreds of thousands of Utahns are handed legal narcotics—packaged versions of street drugs—with the blessing of their doctor, and apparently church leadership. This heavy reliance upon actual drugs leads to stories like this:
Maline Hairup was a devout Mormon. No alcohol, no coffee. She didn’t smoke. Until the day she died, she had never used illegal drugs. Yet she was an addict for most of her adult life.
Methinks we’re missing the mark.
Elder Packer, in the discussion on marijuana, shared a story of a single-toothed individual using meth who has a “wasted life,” though it was unclear what it had to do with the subject at hand. Elder L. Tom Perry lamented the apparent inconsistency of emphasizing “getting rid of tobacco” while also “start[ing] a project to increase marijuana,” though it was unclear to what project he was referring.
Elder Russell M. Nelson noted that he had been at a conference in Colorado where the first question asked during a Q&A session was about medical marijuana—perhaps unsurprising, given the legal activity in that state on the subject at the time. It was noted that the person was told that “the church has no position” on medical marijuana and that the Bishop “would counsel with the individual and teach him about the Word of Wisdom” using the scriptures and the handbook.
Unfortunately, many cannabis-using members of the Church have reported differing approaches their bishops have taken—some instructing them that its use is inconsistent with church doctrine and that the person would therefore not be worthy of admittance to the church’s temples. It is unclear if bishops have been given any uniform instruction on the matter since 2010, given the drastically changing political landscape on the issue of medical marijuana. Otherwise, sincere Saints using cannabis are subject to so-called “leadership roulette” whereby some bishops say it’s okay, and others say it’s not, using differing interpretations of the same doctrine.
I find my church’s opposition to the beneficial and medical use of cannabis to be troubling. Given decades of prohibitionist propaganda, it is not surprising to see church leaders maintain that position and resist any change to it. And having worked on this policy for several years, I completely understand how some people come from this background and are slow to adapt to new research, new stories, and new attitudes.
But I find it worrisome that the well-intentioned policy positions of these leaders are inherently presumed to be sanctioned by and given of God, when I fail to find any evidence of such—and when they themselves do not make the claim. Unfortunately, as the “home teachers” have carried the message to Capitol Hill, they consistently conveyed that their opposition to Senator Madsen’s medical cannabis bill was upon instructions “from the very top,” insinuating that the prophet of God, and therefore God himself (in the minds of many faithful church members), had directed the bill be killed.
I believe the Word of Wisdom explicitly allows for the beneficial use of cannabis, and that criminalization of this product not only denies law-abiding citizens its wonderful properties, but necessarily brings along a whole host of collateral consequences readily evident to anybody who has surveyed the damage caused by the so-called “war on drugs.” I find nothing in our faith’s doctrine that suggests this plant be made illegal, and ample societal evidences to suggest that it should not be.
I come at this from a different perspective than some. I am not hostile to the LDS Church, nor am I an unbeliever. I am a committed Mormon and love our theology. It is rich, inspiring, and wonderful. I am a firm believer and committed (though quite imperfect) disciple of Christ.
But I also believe that leaders of the church, though definitely well intentioned, are not always conduits of revelation; their decisions and beliefs are not, in every single case, a reflection of God’s will. So I am comfortable in my belief while still providing for the leaders of my church taking incorrect positions—even ones that harm many Utahns through maintaining criminalization of cannabis.
Hopefully the near future will be one in which church leaders will be open to considering new evidence, hearing from members directly and positively impacted by the use of cannabis. There are many. And they don’t deserve to be punished for using wholesome herbs ordained by God to help them.
With or without the Church’s support, Utah’s law will soon be altered to provide for the legal, medicinal use of cannabis. Of that I am certain. It’s the right thing to do.