Utah has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit from marijuana advocates who claim the state conspired with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make sweeping changes to a voter-approved ballot initiative legalizing medical pot.
The state attorney general argued in a recent court filing that the church did not influence an agreement that lawmakers passed to legalize the drug but scale down the qualifying medical conditions. Sean Reyes also said church leaders were exercising free speech by lobbying people to oppose the initiative as it appeared on the ballot.
“By calling upon the Legislature to find an appropriate solution and expressing the ‘hope’ for a special session, the church was neither dominating the state nor interfering with its functions,” attorneys wrote in the April 22 court filing. “The church was simply expressing its views and desires on a matter of public interest, as any person or group has the right to do.”
A pair of advocacy groups sued the state in December to block a compromise that legislative leaders, church officials and ballot measure sponsors crafted before the November election and passed after voters legalized medical marijuana. The deal became law earlier this year.
The group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah accused the church of unconstitutional domination and interference in a process that led to a gutting of the ballot measure.
The changes ban many marijuana edibles, prevent people from growing their own marijuana if they live far from a dispensary and make fewer medical conditions eligible for treatment with pot.
About two-thirds of the state’s residents belong to the church, along with nearly nine in 10 members of the Legislature and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
Church leaders declined to comment Friday through spokesman Doug Anderson.
The Utah-based faith has stood behind the work it did to help create the compromise that it considers a safer medical marijuana program. Latter-day Saints have long frowned on marijuana use because of a key church health code called the “Word of Wisdom,” which prohibits the use of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
A church lobbyist told a gathering of local church leaders two days before the Nov. 6 election to “follow the prophet” and vote against the ballot proposition, the lawsuit says. The Utah Constitution bars any church from dominating or interfering in state functions.
Church leaders went well beyond their First Amendment rights, said Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE. She said the changes would make it “near impossible” for patients to access medical marijuana, pushing many to purchase the drug in the black market. She and other advocates are readying a response to the state.
“The church has enormous influence over their members, members that are in positions of power and their vote,” she said. “That’s not free speech, it’s manipulation.”