Medical use of cannabis does not violate Mormon Word of Wisdom

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say that green tea, and drinks ending in ‘-ccino’ are banned under the religion’s strict dietary code. The Word of Wisdom, one of the church’s four volumes of scripture, bans harmful or habit-forming substances and also provides a clear guideline on foods and substances that are good and bad for people to consume. Liquor, tobacco, tea and coffee are prohibited.

LDS recently came out with a statement to followers to remind them that vaping, green tea and fancy coffee drinks are off limits, even iced varieties. Consumption of unhealthy substances is strictly banned under the religion’s dietary rules.

On green tea, the statement was clear, “Green tea and black tea are both made from the leaves of the exact same tea plant. The only difference is that the leaves in black tea are fermented and in green tea they’re not. They’re both tea and against the Word of Wisdom. Some drinks have tea in them but don’t advertise that fact, so always check the ingredients. Also, iced tea is still tea.”

Adult-use cannabis is also banned, of course, but church leaders stopped short of banning opioids and medical cannabis. They said, “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.”

So, why does the Mormon church, in no uncertain terms, prohibit one green (tea) but allow a different one (medical cannabis)? The answer may be found in the Word of Wisdom itself. In addition to prohibitions, the doctrine also offers “prescriptions,” or substances members can consume. One such prescription reads, “[A]ll wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man.”  

While their position on cannabis is hardly that the herb is “wholesome,” it’s clear that the church recognizes at least the potential medical benefits of cannabis, and as their recent statement suggests, find it acceptable for the “use of man” in some circumstances.

While the Mormon religion’s softening position on medical cannabis is welcome, it wasn’t a simple or short journey to get here. The church has long held a restrictive view of cannabis. It has banned adult-use for decades, and even in the case of medical cannabis, has taken a cautious approach to supporting it. 

A History of Opposition and Signs of Change
In 1915, in response to missionaries returning from Mexico with cannabis, The Mormon church banned the use of the plant, two months before Utah officially outlawed consumption. 

Throughout the majority of the modern legalization movement, the church has been a consistent voice of opposition to adult-use cannabis. Leading up to the 2016 elections, LDS leaders sent letters to their congregations in Arizona, California and Nevada — states each with ballot measures seeking to legalize adult-use cannabis — urging members to oppose them

The letter argued that, “Drug abuse in the United States is at epidemic proportions, and the dangers of marijuana to public health and safety are well documented. Recent studies have shed light particularly on the risks marijuana use poses to brain development in youth. The accessibility of recreational marijuana in the home is also a danger to children.” In closing, leaders asked, “Church members to let their voices be heard in opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana.”

While LDS does not explicitly oppose medical cannabis, they did put up fierce oppose Utah’s Proposition 2, a 2018 medical cannabis ballot measure. 

According to Vox, Utah’s Proposition 2, which did pass in 2018, “allows patients to obtain medical marijuana cards via a doctor’s office for certain qualifying conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, chronic pain (if someone is at risk for opioid painkiller addiction or overdose), and multiple sclerosis. But it prohibits smoking marijuana, instead allowing vaping, edibles, and other means of consuming pot.”

“Proposition 2 is not the answer,” said LDS Elder Jack Gerard. “We are in favor of appropriate use of medicinal marijuana, and it’s our view that by calling upon our legislature and local leaders, we can quickly find an appropriate resolution.”

Church leaders, while in favor of allowing medical cannabis to be used to alleviate pain and suffering, unanimously felt that Prop 2 created a slippery slope that would allow for greater adult-use use amongst teens. 

In response to Prop 2’s passage, Mormon leaders changed course and began working with the Utah legislature to create a piece of compromise legislation, which sought to nullify some of Prop 2’s provisions that LDS found most problematic — like home growing and edibles that appeal to children — while still creating a system for medical cannabis patients to access the care they need. 

The recent statement, published in the New Era, was quick to remind LDS members that the adult-use use of cannabis in any way shape or form — regardless of legal status — was strictly forbidden under the faith’s Word of Wisdom Health Code. However, Mormon doctors who recommend cannabis to their patients, and voters who support medical cannabis legalization measures are not at risk of jeopardizing their status within the LDS church.

Pressure from Utah voters and cannabis activists led to yet another compromise bill, which passed Utah’s legislature on September 16. In addition to other changers, the new bill removes state-run dispensaries in favor of more private cannabis pharmacies. While LDS declined to comment on the bill, the church did announce, in January, that it would be stepping away from Utah’s medical cannabis fight.

“We think the state is in a pretty good position right now for medical cannabis.” the Church’s government and community relations manager, Marty Williams said, “It’s our intent now to let the legislature manage this issue. We’re not going to get involved in which doctor should be prescribing, which conditions should be covered. We believe there’s a good compromise in place now and it’s not an issue the Church intends to engage on further going forward.” 

What’s Causing the Change?
While it’s been a slow process since the substance was banned over 100 years ago, there’s no question that, at least in recent years, the Mormon church’s stance on medical cannabis has softened. This leaves many to wonder what motivated the organization, that’s not known for changing its ways, to do just that.

One possible motivator is one that has long motivated cannabis legalization: money. Though it hasn’t released its full financial records in the US for decades, the Mormon church is reported to be worth billions, with interests in industries from real estate to retail. Beyond its considerable stock holdings, the church owns vast amounts of land. In addition to being one of the biggest landowners in Florida, it’s believed that LDS and it subsidiaries own as much as one million acres of agricultural land in Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and other states. Colorado’s tax revenue demonstrates just how lucrative cannabis can be. Perhaps the Mormon church has plans to use some of their farmland to cultivate newly-legal cannabis?

Another motivator may be simpler: momentum. Including Utah, 33 states have now legalized medical cannabis, 11 of which have also legalized adult-use. Public has also drastically shifted. According to the most data from Pew Research, 62% of Americans support cannabis legalization, nearly double the support it had a decade ago. It’s also telling that despite Utah’s estimated 62% Mormon population and the church’s opposition to the initiative, Proposition 2 earned more than 52% of the vote. Suggesting that even some Mormons disagreed with the church’s position. This might be an instance of church leadership recognizing the inevitability of cannabis progress, and choosing to influence it rather than oppose it.

What’s Next?
Though the Mormon position on cannabis is still largely prohibitive, the fact that a religion with such strict rules on substance use has developed nuanced take on medical cannabis is remarkable. It speaks to both the mounting evidence into cannabis’ medical efficacy, as well as the mounting public support for changing cannabis laws. 

Is the Mormon church’s evolution on cannabis a harbinger of things to come? In a world where cannabis is entering the mainstream and CBD is available in drug stores, how long can large institutions resist change? Can advertising platforms like Facebook and Google maintain their strict no-cannabis advertising policies? The National Football League is currently facing considerable pressure to allow cannabis use among its players, as the National Hockey League has done already. 

Even with the institutional progress being made, the most important institution, the federal government, is lagging behind. But progress is still possible. The church’s position proves that even sustained resistance can be overcome so that progress can be made. And with recent legislative victories, historic drug approvals, and landmark cannabis and CBD hearings happening throughout Washington D.C., progress at the federal level may very well come sooner than expected.

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