Who would have thunk It? While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long preached abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine, there they were working alongside the Utah Medical Association and Utah law enforcement groups to develop regulations for medical cannabis. And as of this year, patients in Utah are able to register, obtain a card, and purchase cannabis at over a dozen licensed pharmacies.
It’s an interesting wrinkle in a state that is so influenced by the Mormon Church. Mormons make up over 60 percent of the state’s population, and according to the Salt Lake Tribune, nearly 90 percent of the state legislature. Even bars were not legal in Utah until 2003, and stores and restaurants are not allowed to sell beer that is more than 5 percent alcohol.
So while it came as no surprise that the church was initially against any form of medical cannabis in the state, Utah residents were not. In 2018, Utah voters approved a ballot referendum measure to allow for legalization of medical cannabis, even though the church actively worked to oppose the issue. While their official position endorsed a “no” vote on the proposition due to what they considered lax controls, they did say “The Church does not object to the medicinal use of marijuana, if doctor prescribed, in dosage form, through a licensed pharmacy.”
After the measure passed, the church modified its stance, and became focused on assuring the coming bill would not have loopholes that would allow for recreational use. However, the legislation that eventually emerged through church influence was more conservative than what voters originally approved. Nonetheless, the Utah program is viewed as a model for other conservative states to adopt, as it successfully creates a barrier between medicinal and recreational usage.
Utah medical cannabis patients must apply for a medical card through the Utah ‘Department of Health — the sole issuer — and be certified in person as eligible by a medical provider. The only forms of cannabis allowed to be purchased at licensed pharmacies are tablet, capsule, oil, transdermal patch, cube, wax, and unprocessed, pre-packaged flower in tamper‑resistant packaging. However, flower cannot be smoked — only vaporization is allowed. Edible products including gummies, cookies, brownies and others are prohibited.
In addition, certified pharmacists must be present on-site at all times to double check transactions. This, of course, increases pharmacy costs and ultimately affects the prices that Utah patients must pay.
The most recent numbers show over 23,000 active cardholders in the state, even with the tight controls on obtaining a card. But polls show little statewide interest at present to take the next step toward recreational legalization, or even pass legislation to decriminalize simple possession. The Mormon Church would certainly actively oppose additional legislation, so for now in Utah this is as good as it gets.