Inside the Last Opposition to Legal Cannabis: Lessons from Mormon Church Investments

Inside the Last Opposition to Legal Cannabis: Lessons from Mormon Church Investments

While 94 percent of Americans support access to medical cannabis, it remains a crime for any reason in 31 states and at the federal level. These numbers are beyond baffling considering traditionally conservative states like Utah, Missouri, and Oklahoma actually support in-state medical cannabis programs but are still having to beg for money and mercy to change the law and decriminalize their use.

What is holding these states back?

Publicly, the influential opposition has maintained its hold on these 31 states by inflaming the culture war between conservative and liberal ideologies. But with 94 percent of Americans actually agreeing on medical cannabis, the endless culture wars are simply “good business” — a distraction from the true incentive the powerful minority opposition to this issue has to suppress it. (Let that be a lesson from the world of cannabis to all American politics!)

From late 2013 through mid-2015, I lived in Salt Lake City and commuted to work for a cannabis magazine in Berkeley, in my home state of California. During that time, Utah became the first state in the nation to pass a CBD-only medical cannabis law. I worked with local activists to promote whole-plant legislation, which would eventually make it to the Senate floor in January 2015; former Senator Mark Madsen’s S.B. 259. Despite the Mormon-led movement towards medical cannabis pushing the issue to critical mass, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) worked behind the scenes then to kill the bill and would do it two more times in the state legislature.

RelatedWhy Are More Millennials Choosing Weed Over Booze?

Last year, activists took the base of Madsen’s bill and announced they would be running it as a ballot initiative in the 2018 midterms. It qualified for the November ballot on April 20 and support for the issue is now hovering between 70 and 80 percent in most state polls. In May, the Mormon Church declared its opposition in conjunction with a paid campaign led by the Utah Medical Association with support from DEA-affiliated law enforcement groups to approach signers of the initiative petition and ask them to remove their signature. This attempt was unsuccessful.

It's About Money

What exactly was motivating them to put so much money and energy into preventing the chronic and fatally ill access to non-toxic botanical cannabis plant? As a patient myself, I want to believe they are motivated by ignorance because it excuses the fact that they are pushing for people like me to suffer needlessly. But, for years, I (and others) have hypothesized that the LDS Church may have significant financial holdings in pharmaceutical companies threatened by legalized cannabis and that may be what truly motivates their opposition.

It looks like the financial incentive is now fact, not speculation. Late last month the website MormonLeaks.com released documents detailing $32 billion in private stock investments owned by the LDS Church. I combed through this list and made some startling discoveries. Beyond the fact that you couldn’t boycott this tax-exempt church if you tried (they have holdings in everything from World Wrestling Entertainment to Google, Amazon, and Facebook), the major takeaway is that these finances paint a real clear picture about why the Church has worked to block access to botanical cannabis; it’s just business.

I found that not only does the Church have nearly $2 billion tied up in pharmaceutical companies and specifically all the major ones producing and profiting from synthetic cannabinoid drugs, which represented about $1.2 billion in total investment, but the Church’s portfolios also rely heavily on these drugs in other ways; they own stock in health insurance companies that are reimbursed by Medicare when they prescribe these drugs, they own stock in companies that make medical equipment that delivers these drugs and they own stock in companies that research and market these drugs. They also own stock in major opiate manufacturers, companies that make opiate addiction treatment drugs and for-profit drug rehabs specializing in opiate addiction.

RelatedWelcome Back to the Most Pot-friendly Pro Sport

Here are just a few takeaways about the Church-led opposition in Utah, but this list should serve as a reference for activists and politicians in the rest of the states where cannabis is illegal so that they can also uncover the motivations of their opposition. The main takeaway? None of these shenanigans will end — and therefore no patient or consumer will be safe — until the federal government fully decriminalizes all interactions with the cannabis plant and removes it entirely from the Controlled Substances Act. We, as American citizens, must declare that WE are “too big to fail,” not banks, pharmaceutical companies, and private prisons.

1. Abbot Laboratories and AbbVie, $242,632,247.90

The LDS Church owns 263,553 shares of AbbVie (ABBV) and 3,463,432 shares of Abbott Laboratories (ABT), currently worth $25,717,501.74 and $216,914,746.16, respectively. Amid the “medical marijuana” buzz coming out of the gay community in San Francisco in the 1980s — at the height of the AIDS epidemic — Abbott Laboratories developed a standardized drug made from a synthesized version of what was thought at the time to be the only “active ingredient” in cannabis: delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Dronabinol, aka Marinol.

Marinol is pure synthetic THC suspended in sesame oil and was FDA-approved as a Schedule III drug in 1985 that causes side effects that don’t occur with botanical cannabis use and ultimately led to the discovery of the entourage effect. It is regularly prescribed to children and adults and considered safe to drive on after the user develops a tolerance.

Of course, the irony in this is that the existence of THC — a Schedule III drug — is what is used to justify the Schedule I status of the cannabis plant as well as the continued over-regulation of high-THC producing cannabis in states where it is legal.

Abbott Laboratories currently owns the rights to the drug Dexabinol (originally developed by Solvay Pharmaceuticals), which is also a synthetic cannabinoid drug. AbbVie is a spin-off independent company of Abbott Laboratories and is the current manufacturer of Marinol.

AbbVie’s real cash cow, however, is a drug called Humira. Humira is among the most profitable drugs in world history and makes tens of billions a year in net profits. Humira was first prescribed to treat Crohn’s Disease (which I have) but has since (like its sister drug Remicade) been prescribed for a whole host of autoimmune- and inflammation-based chronic conditions, like arthritis. As cannabis and diet therapy continues to show more and more promise for people like me, they become a major threat to the bottom lines of companies like Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie. Oh yeah, and drugs like Humira and Remicade work by suppressing the immune system, meaning users are plagued with infections, their chances of cancer increase over time it, and side effects can become unbearable. (I say this from first-hand experience.)

2. Cara Therapeutics, $1,654,404.36

The LDS Church owns 98,126 shares of Cara Therapeutics (CARA), which at current valuation is worth $1,654,404.36. While $1.6 million is nothing to balk at, it is a drop in the bucket compared to some of the Church’s other more significant holdings. However, Cara is a notable investment because the company focuses on pain medications and specifically medications made of synthetic cannabinoids or those targeting the endocannabinoid system.

3. Celgene, $333,529,156.88

The LDS Church owns 4,310,276 shares of Celgene (CELG), which has partnered with Abide Therapeutics to develop synthetic cannabinoid medicines for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis. The Church is likely one of Celgene’s largest shareholders.

4. CoreCivic Inc, $6,626,308

CoreCivic Inc. is not a pharmaceutical company, but the largest for-profit privately held prison corporation in the world. Formerly known as Corrections Corporations of America, this powerful industry has lobbied the federal government to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and has seen its value soar along with the American population of incarcerated persons. It is a relevant addition to any list like this because it shows a direct profit incentive in lobbying to keep cannabis a crime at the federal level.

5. Endo International plc, Gilead Sciences, Inc., GlaxoSmithKilne plc & Johnson & Johnson, $574,060,653.92

The LDS Church owns 89,400 shares of Endo International (ENDP, worth $793,872), 1,398,859 shares of Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD, worth $99,724,658.11), 45,800 shares of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK, worth $1,884,212) and 3,846,187 shares of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ, worth 471,657,911.81). Notably, Johnson & Johnson has invested in an entire firm to study and develop FDA-approved cannabinoid drugs. All of these companies hold patents to study or develop cannabinoid drugs, many are already in the process.

6. Valeant Pharmaceuticals, $102,068

The LDS Church owns 3,800 shares of Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX) valued at just $102,068. This is a notable inclusion for a couple reasons; this is “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli’s company and they are the producers of Cesamet, a commonly prescribed synthetic cannabinoid med.