Inside the Mormon Medical Marijuana Caravan

Inside the Mormon Medical Marijuana Caravan

The Latter Day Saints are coming like crazy to my door, it’s like this huge caravan coming back and forth from Utah… The Saints are coming down, these Saints with little broken halos because they are breaking the law,” said Angela Harris.

Harris is a Las Vegas-based herbalist, medical cannabis advocate, mother of nine, and lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She discovered cannabis through her work as an herbalist and has dedicated much of the last four years to educating the conservative Mormon community about it. Thanks to her advocacy and experience — as well as the Church’s strong interconnected network — LDS stake presidents and bishops have been sending a steady stream of people to her to help guide them through administering medical cannabis legally in Nevada. Utah patients have continually found her through Church networks and made their way unsolicited to Harris seeking help and guidance. Meanwhile, legislators in Utah are working diligently and quickly to undo a voter-backed medical cannabis ballot initiative that passed earlier this month.

Harris understands the hesitancy in the community, she herself was completely anti-cannabis until she started to learn more about it and how it became illegal in the first place. In 2015, she advocated for medical cannabis at the state capital in Salt Lake City with patients who had caravanned to her home in Nevada. She has been watching the debate over medical cannabis in Utah unfold around the Proposition 2 campaign and the legislature’s current attempts to replace the new medical cannabis law with a program so restrictive it might not work. She wants them to take into account all the suffering Utahns currently smuggling or using on trips to nearby states to craft a workable policy.

The [Utah legislature is] misinformed to think that this is not going on. [The patients] are dying. For some people they want to save their life more than they don’t want to break the law. For a Latter-day Saint that is huge, that is a big deal, it is part of who we are — believing that we obey the laws of the land. It is disturbing to watch this. These are medical refugees seeking asylum from the prejudices of their church,” said Harris. “These are all Saints, our own members."

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Harris is referring to the 12th article in the LDS Articles of Faith, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Simply put, it is a core belief of the LDS faith to “follow the law of the land,” and so many LDS patients in Utah are either abstaining from getting relief using it, even if they want to, or actively traveling to states where it is legal to use it, or even just try it. In states where medical cannabis is legal, many LDS patients are using cannabis with the blessings of their bishops or other Church leaders.

Harris says that it is time for LDS Utah patients to stop being sent to Las Vegas, aka “Sin City,” or other nearby Nevada cities to seek relief from medical cannabis. She says some of the people she has met will leave their homes, families, and work duties to “lock themselves in hotel rooms” for weeks to use legally in attempts to get better.

You have to change these laws so they don’t have to come down here,” she said. “Let them get out of pain! Let them get out of pain! That is the thing, no one has died from it and teen use has gone down. So ok, let’s go!”

Harris is referring to the policy currently being created in Salt Lake. After a multi-year struggle, advocates succeeded in putting medical cannabis on the 2018 midterm ballot in Utah, where it passed despite well-funded opposition, including from the Church itself. Now the lame duck Utah legislature plans to replace the medical cannabis bill voters approved, Proposition 2, in a special session with a legislative bill that will restrict access and potentially be non-functioning. Lawsuits are already pending.

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On December 3, the Utah legislature will hold the special session amid protests and patient opposition. Among the changes in the replacement bill are quite a few points that butt up against federal law; doctors will “prescribe” (not recommend) specific dosages of cannabis, most private business will be eliminated and cannabis will be distributed through local departments of health via a state-run “central fill pharmacy.”

Much of the idea is to treat cannabis like a pharmaceutical drug, although it is not one and cannot legally, under federal law, be treated as such. Patients in Utah are demanding a program in line with the nearby states they are currently smuggling from. As an herbalist, Harris believes cannabis should be left to the realm of herbalism not pharmaceutical medicine.

Harris has been following the negotiations and how they have been influenced by big business and is worried the new law will do nothing to stem the tide of patients being sent to her door for legal guidance in Nevada.

“The recommendations the Utah Medical Association are making are asinine, to say the least,” she said.

Under the proposed replacement legislation, autoimmune diseases and gastrointestinal disorders not diagnosed as Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis were removed. Patients must “fail” two alternate delivery methods (such as orally consumed oils and tinctures) in order to be allowed to access raw flower for vaporization. Raw flower would be sold in blister packs. Further, because of the nature and unaccounted for costs of the state-run central fill pharmacy proposed under the legislation, the program may be non-functional by the 2021 deadline.

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Patient groups such as the Epilepsy Association of Utah and Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) were kept out of negotiations and have vocally opposed the replacement legislation.

Referring to an analysis done by Americans for Safe Access of the first draft of the replacement legislation that determined the program would be non-functional, these groups have advocated heavily against it.

“TRUCE believes that if the legislature’s goal here really is for patients to have proper safe access to medical cannabis, Utah patients deserve at least a passing grade,” said Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE. “My biggest concern is that this replacement bill was born in fear and designed to fail. More concessions were made to the financially incentivized opposition to safe access. Under this replacement legislation Utah’s sick are treated as ‘criminals until proven patients.’ It is important that when crafting a quality program that is patient-centric, we call on experts from the field for guidance. Utah is moving forward with cannabis policy and should create meaningful legislation rather than public messaging stunts.”

Harris hopes that better information and compassion for human suffering will inform better policy making in Salt Lake.

"I feel like angels are weeping. This is wrong to do to people who are clearly suffering. It's an ugly situation — ugly because because we can't help these suffering Saints up in Utah. We tried to change the law so now the only choice for relief is to break the law and risk losing there Church memberships," Harris concluded.