The Mormon Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, far left, is a prominent part of the skyline in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Peter Dejong, Associated Press file)

Mormon church eases up on Utah medical marijuana opposition

SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon church eased its opposition Monday to a broad medical marijuana plan that faces a key vote this week in Utah’s Legislature.

While stopping short of endorsing the proposal, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the added restrictions to the plan late last week were substantial improvements.

The faith’s softened stance could ease the plan’s passage as many Utah lawmakers are members of the faith.

UPDATE: The medical marijuana proposal has received preliminary senate approval.

The plan would allow tens of thousands of residents with certain chronic conditions to consume marijuana in edible forms and as an e-cigarette-style vapor. It would ban smoking the drug in a cigarette form.

Utah’s Senate spent nearly an hour on Friday debating the plan as the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Mark Madsen of Eagle Mountain, made last-minute changes that included a ban on giving the raw, unprocessed plant to patients out of fear they may smoke it.

Senators ran out of time to vote on the measure but are expected to resume debate as soon as Monday afternoon.

Church officials announced several weeks ago that they worried the plan would have unintended consequences. The church had no objections to an alternative, much more restrictive plan that Utah lawmakers are also considering.

That proposal would allow very restricted use of marijuana plant extracts that produce no psychoactive effects.

Supporters of the broader medical pot plan saw the church’s statement as a major blow, particularly as the LDS Church’s stance has helped speed and squash bills in the past.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement Monday that the faith still believes Utah legislators should focus on allowing people who are suffering to use marijuana extracts while avoiding any increase in drug abuse.

“We continue to urge Legislators to take into account the acknowledged need for scientific research in this matter and to fully address regulatory controls on manufacture and distribution for the health and safety of all Utahns,” Hawkins said.

The restrictive extract plan that the church has not opposed is seen by some conservative Utah legislators as a safer option than the wide-ranging medical marijuana laws that more than 20 other states have passed.

Utah already allows the marijuana extract, called cannabidiol, to be used by those with severe epilepsy, as long as they obtain the product from other states. It has low levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Rep. Brad Daw of Orem and Sen. Evan Vickers of Cedar City have proposed allowing it to be made and distributed in Utah under tight controls.

Some pushing for expanded access to marijuana as a medical treatment argue that’s not enough. They’ve said their health conditions won’t qualify under the plan from Daw and Vickers or that they need treatment from products with higher levels of THC.

Utah’s Senate voted 18-8 on Monday to approve that plan and advance it to the House of Representatives.