Mar­i­juana bat­tle pits Mor­mon vs. Mor­mon

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - NATION & WORLD - By Kur­tis Lee Los An­ge­les Times

WEST JOR­DAN, UTAH — Brian Stoll faced a dilemma as his wed­ding day ap­proached. For more than a year, he had been smok­ing mar­i­juana to treat se­vere back pain, but to re­main in good stand­ing with the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints and get mar­ried in the tem­ple, he had to stop us­ing pot.

Since mar­i­juana was il­le­gal un­der Utah law, church lead­ers told him, it was for­bid­den. Stoll turned to an opioid painkiller and has con­tin­ued us­ing it since his mar­riage three years ago, de­spite un­pleas­ant side ef­fects and its in­abil­ity to match the sooth­ing qual­i­ties of mar­i­juana.

“This was dev­as­tat­ing ... I had to choose be­tween my health and my fi­ancee,” Stoll said re­cently. “It seemed asi­nine that if I lived in an­other state, I wouldn’t have to make such a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion.”

Per­haps soon, Stoll said, that could all change for him and his fel­low Mor­mons in Utah.

In Novem­ber, vot­ers here will con­sider a bal­lot mea­sure to le­gal­ize med­i­cal mar­i­juana and pos­si­bly join 30 oth­ers states that al­low its use.

While op­po­nents, in­clud­ing a group of Utah doc­tors, have char­ac­ter­ized Propo­si­tion 2 as a clear and dan­ger­ous step on the path to­ward le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational pot in the state, sup­port­ers say the ini­tia­tive is a move of com­pas­sion.

“We’re talk­ing about med­i­cal mar­i­juana, which sci­ence time and again has shown to have ben­e­fits for peo­ple in pain and suf­fer­ing,” said D J Schanz, a Mor­mon and the di­rec­tor of the cam­paign sup­port­ing the mea­sure. “Peo­ple are be­ing pre­scribed pills but can’t use some­thing nat­u­ral.”

Among those gath­er­ing sig­na­tures to place the mea­sure on the bal­lot was Stoll. The prod­uct of a de­vout Mor­mon home in the Salt Lake Val­ley, he started tak­ing pre­scrip­tion opi­oids in 2012, af­ter frac­tur­ing his back in a fall dur­ing his sopho­more year at Brigham Young Univer­sity.

The pills helped some­what, but he hated the pos­si­bil­ity of grow­ing ad­dicted. So at 24, Stoll bought a mini bong and some pot, and soon his life changed. The pain faded, and he could sit through church ser­vices and go on hikes. Fears of ad­dic­tion no longer flooded his mind, and his mood im­proved.

But then came his en­gage­ment and his de­sire to be mar­ried in the tem­ple. He now takes a tablet of Tra­madol most morn­ings. The pow­er­ful opioid can cloud his mind and make him drowsy, but he said that with­out it, he couldn’t sit through the fourhour service at his Mor­mon meet­ing house. The gnaw­ing pain in his back would turn to a throb.

One re­cent Sun­day morn­ing, Stoll gulped down the small, white pill as he rushed out the door and headed to his church.

Church lead­ers long re­mained silent on the mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive but even­tu­ally took a pub­lic stance, re­leas­ing a brief state­ment in April laud­ing a memo by the Utah Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, a group of doc­tors op­posed to the mea­sure. The church praised the as­so­ci­a­tion for “cau­tion­ing that the pro­posed Utah mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive would com­pro­mise the health and safety of Utah com­mu­ni­ties.” A month later, church lead­ers put out a doc­u­ment cit­ing le­gal con­cerns, in­clud­ing “sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for law en­force­ment.”

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Salt Lake Tri­bune-Hinck­ley In­sti­tute of Politics poll, two-thirds of vot­ers in Utah, where more than 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as Mor­mon, sup­port the med­i­cal mar­i­juana proposal.

The lead­ers of the church, whose mem­ber­ship tops 16 million world­wide, “have enor­mous sway in Utah,” said Philip Bar­low, a pro­fes­sor of Mor­mon his­tory at Utah State Univer­sity. And yet, he noted, “Mor­mon con­clu­sions are not mono­lithic.”

“Among the ma­jor­ity in the state who iden­tify as LDS, a fair por­tion of these, as with all re­li­gions, are not ro­bust or ac­tive in prac­tic­ing their faith,” Bar­low said. “They sim­ply iden­tify as Mor­mon, as op­posed to Bap­tist or Mus­lim.”

The Mor­mon Church has a his­tory of weigh­ing in on so­cial is­sues.

In 2008, church mem­bers helped bankroll a suc­cess­ful cam­paign in Cal­i­for­nia for Propo­si­tion 8, which banned same-sex mar­riage in the state un­til it was struck down as un­con­sti­tu­tional. Last year in Utah, the church sup­ported a suc­cess­ful ef­fort by law­mak­ers to cre­ate the low­est blood-al­co­hol driv­ing limit in the coun­try _ 0.05 per­cent _ de­spite con­cerns from the state’s tourism in­dus­try.

While the church’s doc­trine re­gard­ing health, re­ferred to as the “Word of Wis­dom,” does not di­rectly ad­dress med­i­cal mar­i­juana, it does ask mem­bers to ab­stain from al­co­hol, to­bacco, cof­fee, tea and “il­le­gal drugs.” In re­cent years, some church mem­bers, in­clud­ing Stoll, have sought clar­ity on what clas­si­fies as an il­le­gal drug, es­pe­cially as more and more states le­gal­ize mar­i­juana for med­i­cal or recre­ational use.

The church de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Utah has a long his­tory with pot. In the early 1900s, it was among the first states to ban cannabis, fol­low­ing the re­turn of Mor­mon church mem­bers from mis­sions in Mex­ico, where some his­to­ri­ans have said they used pot, ac­cord­ing to a ref­er­ence hand­book on mar­i­juana by scholar David E. New­ton.

Dur­ing the state’s current bat­tle, Gov. Gary Her­bert, a Repub­li­can and a mem­ber of the Mor­mon church, has voiced his reser­va­tions about Propo­si­tion 2.

“I am con­cerned about this ini­tia­tive be­cause of the lack of med­i­cal sci­ence on the safety, ef­fi­cacy and proper dosage for com­pounds found in cannabis,” Her­bert said in an email. Re­fer­ring to the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, he added, “We should have clin­i­cal stud­ies _ just like we do for any other FDA-ap­proved medicine. We need to iso­late what helps and heals from what harms.”

While trav­el­ing the state, Her­bert said, he has met with Utahns re­cov­er­ing from ad­dic­tion who have told him “that mar­i­juana was their gate­way drug to other more dan­ger­ous and ad­dic­tive drugs.”

“To a per­son,” Her­bert said, “they have ar­gued against the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana.”

For Stoll, who works in dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing in this sub­urb south of Salt Lake City with views of the tow­er­ing Wasatch Range, his pain has pro­pelled his ac­tivism.

Two years ago, he tes­ti­fied be­fore law­mak­ers about a bill that would have le­gal­ized pot for med­i­cal pur­poses. The mea­sure died in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture. But law­mak­ers have passed laws over the years that, among other things, al­low oils and creams made from the non-psy­choac­tive com­po­nent of cannabis.

Be­fore Stoll, his wife and their in­fant daugh­ter drove to the red-brick meet­ing house in West Jor­dan on a re­cent Sun­day, he pulled out the green bong he’s kept in a card­board box in his closet since his mar­riage in 2015.

He can’t help but think about how much pot helped him _ about what his life would be like if he could give up the Tra­madol.

But he fears los­ing his good stand­ing within the church _ a des­ig­na­tion that allows him to at­tend tem­ples, where Mor­mons marry, have bap­tisms and other ma­jor life cer­e­monies. At times, Stoll ad­mits, he thinks about mov­ing out of state to bet­ter treat his con­di­tion. Stoll said he knows Mor­mons in other states _ where pot is le­gal _ who use mar­i­juana and are in good stand­ing and have tem­ple rec­om­mends with the church be­cause sym­pa­thetic lo­cal church lead­ers have given their as­sent. He wants that for him­self.

“This is some­thing that if I drive east or west _ to Colorado or Ne­vada _ is 100 per­cent le­gal and help­ful to my sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “We’re not talk­ing about recre­ational. This is sim­ply for med­i­cal.”

His wife, Rachael, said her hus­band seemed health­ier when he used cannabis.

“As a fam­ily, we need this to be­come law,” she said, hold­ing their daugh­ter, Everly. “We pray for this.”

But her step­fa­ther, Hec­tor Lla­mas, 63, dis­agrees, say­ing he fore­sees med­i­cal pot be­ing sold on the black mar­ket.

“Peo­ple buy it with a card and then turn around and sell it else­where is go­ing to be a prob­lem,” Lla­mas said as the fam­ily sat at the kitchen ta­ble be­fore church.

LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Brian Stoll plays with his his 5-month-old daugh­ter, Everly, as his wife, Rachael, looks on. A civil war of sorts is brew­ing within the Mor­mon church over mar­i­juana leg­is­la­tion, in some cases caus­ing rifts within fam­i­lies.

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