Just a few years back, the phrase “cannabis in Utah” would almost sound like an oxymoron. With the dominance of the Mormon Church, Utah is considered to be a very conservative state. Generally, most people outside the hubs of Salt Lake City belong to the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) which has made a significant contribution to the history of cannabis in Utah.
Medical cannabis was legalized in Utah in 2018 by ballot measure. Medical cannabis patients can now purchase cannabis from any legal Utah dispensary. Adult-use marijuana in the state however remains illegal. In 2014, the state passed a CBD-only law; allowing the consumption of low-THC cannabis products. In 2018, the state passed proposition 2 which allowed patients with a medical marijuana card to purchase cannabis from legal cannabis pharmacies. This was a big win for cannabis enthusiasts who had worked relentlessly to get marijuana legalized.
Here is how it all began.
Cannabis Journey in Utah
In the last few years, Utahns have made a gradual move from being overtly anti-cannabis to adopting a more liberal approach towards cannabis and other aspects of life that were once taboo. The journey that set-off in 1915 has been long and winding, but nevertheless, very rewarding for cannabis enthusiasts in Utah. With adult-use marijuana still illegal in Utah, the journey is yet to be concluded. But given how the industry has evolved, it will not be a surprise if the conservative state soon joins the other 18 states that have legalized both medical and adult-use marijuana.
Cannabis Prohibition Era
Some sources claim that Utah was the first state in the U.S to explicitly ban cannabis; and this allegedly happened in 1915. It is believed that the Church of Latter Day Saints prohibited its members from using cannabis. Two months later, the state government took a cue and banned cannabis use throughout the state. Cannabis remained prohibited in Utah until the 1990s when different groups in the state began lobbying for change.
CBD Legalized in Utah in 2014
In March 2014, Governor Gary Herbert, signed House Bill 105 that legalized the personal possession of Low-THC CBD oil. The CBD oil allowed patients to access this type of CBD with a doctor’s prescription. However, there was no legal way to access CBD oil at that time since the Agricultural Act that legalized hemp had not been passed.
In February 2016, the Mormon Church released a statement indicating that the church was not against the legalization of CBD oil but was against the legalization of the whole plant.
“While we are not in a position to evaluate specific medical claims, the Church understands that there are some individuals who may benefit from the medical use of compounds found in marijuana.”
Senate Bill 250 of 2015
In 2015, Senator Mark B. Madsen proposed Senate Bill 259 to legalize medical cannabis in the state. However, he introduced the bill when there were just 8 working days left to the end of the legislative session. Qualifying conditions in this bill included AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune disorders, cachexia, nausea, cancer, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, epilepsy, seizures, chronic pain, and PTSD. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated by a vote of 15-14 in the senate. Madsen promised to try again next year.
Senate Bill 73 of 2016
In 2016, Sen Madsen attempted to reintroduce senate bill 73 to legalize cannabis. This bill would have legalized the use of cannabis for treating a host of medical conditions. This bill also included measures for robust cultivation and distribution which were lacking in the 2015 bill.
The bill was debated in the senate and Madsen made a number of concessions and amendments to it. It was passed in the senate with a vote of 17-12. Unfortunately, the House Health and Human Services Committee failed to pass the bill with a 4-8 vote. Madsen did not attempt to revisit this legislation. He also did not run in the next election.
Ballot Proposition 2 Passed in 2018
In February 2018, the House of Representatives in Utah passed HB 195 to legalize cannabis for medical use. The bill was passed by the senate in March of that year and later signed into law by the governor. In November, the bill was passed as ballot proposition 2 or the Utah Medical Marijuana Act.
HB3001 Passed to Improve Proposition 2
On December 3, 2018, HB 3001 was introduced and passed in the Utah legislature to amend the Utah medical cannabis act. This bill was signed by the governor on the same day and became law immediately.
Cannabis and the Mormon Church in Utah
In 2019, about 60% of the population in Utah were affiliated to the Mormon Church. Even though the church is considered to be non-political, the views of the church which are very conservative seem to permeate every facet of life in Utah.
The Mormon Church prohibits the use of intoxicating substances. This one factor may serve as an impediment towards the legalization of recreational use. The church leaders, including church president Rusell M. Nelson, have constantly reiterated that the question on medical cannabis is not for the church but for individual consultation.
In 2019, the church issued the following statement through an article that was published in the New Era youth magazine:
“Marijuana may be legal for medicinal or even recreational use in a lot of places now, but that doesn’t mean that any use is suddenly not against the Word of Wisdom. Medical uses are being studied, but just like many pain medications such as opioids, marijuana is an addictive substance. Such habit-forming substances should be avoided except under the care of a competent physician, and then used only as prescribed.” However, some sources claim that cannabis prohibition in Utah was part of a larger anti-drug movement.
The Future of Cannabis in Utah
In the past, most Utahns were strongly anti-cannabis or pro-prohibition. This has changed gradually over time. As more people continue to embrace liberalism, such archaic mind sets have continued to fade out and pave way for divergent views.
To date, there is still a rift between pro and anti-cannabis groups in Utah. A group of Utah doctors have argued that legalizing cannabis in Utah was a grave mistake, but supporters consider Proposition 2 as a move of compassion.
Like its neighboring states, we expect to have an ongoing cannabis conversation in Utah into the near future. We also expect to see Utahns join other states in pushing for the de-scheduling of cannabis and legalizing it at the federal level.