Lawsuit drops claim Mormon church swayed medical pot changes
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Marijuana advocates dropped legal claims Friday that Utah lawmakers conspired with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make sweeping changes to a voter-approved ballot initiative legalizing medical pot.
Their lawsuit will instead focus on an allegation that it was unconstitutional to replace a law passed by voters and raise questions about whether the changes are at odds with federal laws that still say marijuana is illegal, said Rocky Anderson, an attorney representing two advocacy groups.
If a judge agrees, the law would revert back to the version passed by voters, said Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor.
The announcement comes amid divisions over marijuana legalization and church overreach in Utah.
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 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,” state 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.”
The group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah sued the state in December to block a compromise that legislative leaders, church officials and proposition sponsors crafted before the November election and passed after voters legalized medical marijuana.
The deal became law earlier this year. It bans many marijuana edibles, prevents people from growing marijuana if they live far from a dispensary and makes fewer medical conditions eligible for treatment with pot.
Christine Stenquist, executive director and founder of TRUCE, said the changes would make it “near impossible” for patients to access medical marijuana, pushing many to purchase the drug in the black market.
The groups initially accused the church of unconstitutional domination and interference in a process that led the ballot measure to be gutted, but they have since dropped those allegations from the lawsuit.
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.
Church leaders declined to comment Friday through spokesman Doug Anderson.
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.