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0000017c-db5f-dc30-a1fe-df5fc5090000RadioWest and KUER News have been covering the debate around medical marijuana in Utah. We've spoken with journalists and researchers as well as proponents and opponents to Utah's Proposition 2. Stay tuned for more conversations as you prepare to vote in November.

'I Don't Want To Be Illegal Anymore': One Mormon's Complicated Relationship With Marijuana

Jason Harris.
Lee Hale / KUER
Jason Harris.

Marijuana and Mormonism don't usually go together. And that puts Jason Harris in a cloudy position, even if pot has essentially cleared up his life.

The Utah County resident, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, uses marijuana every day to deal with the painful symptoms related to a brain cyst. The daily drug use goes against everything Harris, 42, learned growing up as a faithful Mormon in a Las Vegas household where his father struggled with addiction.

"I didn't drink — I avoided it. I didn't take drugs. I didn't smoke. Didn't take marijuana. No way," Harris said.

After a series of medical issues brought on by an old dirt-biking accident and his own struggles with opioid dependency, Harris turned to medical marijuana, which has allowed him to live a productive life.

But that doesn't mean Harris hasn't struggled to reconcile his faith with what he knows is illegal. Because of this, Harris chooses not to take the sacrament — communion — at church on Sundays. He also opted not to give his children a father's blessing before their first day of school this year, a kind of cultural expectation.

"I'm not sure how difficult it was for them," Harris said. " But I know it was difficult for me to watch my father-in-law have to do that."

Credit KUER News

For that reason he is hoping that on election day this November Utahns approve Proposition 2 to legalize medical marijuana and ease the painful guilt that comes with his pain management.

His church, on the other hand, is not on board. Church officials have spoken out publicly against the ballot initiative. But Mormon leaders have added a disclaimer to their stance on marijuana that has given Harris some hope.

"The Church has come out and made clear that we do not object to the medicinal use of marijuana," said Jack Gerard, a general authority seventy, part of the third highest governing body for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "What we're asking for and what we're really focused on is appropriate safeguards."

It is a significant shift that the Church does not oppose medical marijuana outright. But Gerard, who added that he feels for Mormons such as Harris, said the current initiative "goes too far" by allowing marijuana to be sold through dispensaries, as it is in neighboring states.

"We laid out, if you will, the ideal — prescribed through a doctor, through a licensed pharmacy," Gerard said. 

Gerard said he understands that the ideal can be changed through compromise, signaling that the Church could get behind a more regulated sales approach to marijuana, mirroring state-run liquor stores.

But for now, the Church is asking Utahns to reject the initiative on November's ballot. Steve Urquhart, a former Utah state senator and a Mormon, thinks that many faithful churchgoers will fall in line.

"But folks who are a little on the bubble or not in the Church — this is pretty infuriating to them that the Church would tell its obedient members how to vote on something that really is a policy issue," Urquhart said.

Because of that resistance, Urquhart believes the initiative isn't dead. Statewide polling shows that the initiative as it is remains very popular — with an approval rating of more than 60 percent.

"I think it passes and I think it passes in considerable numbers," Urquhart said.

"It's The Worst Thing About Me"

As polling suggests, some faithful Mormons don't agree with their church's stance. Perhaps these people know someone like Jason Harris - who says his life was saved by the very thing he has been asked to reject.

Harris did all the things a Mormon is supposed to do. He served a Mormon mission to Brazil, attended Brigham Young University, got married and moved to New Mexico for a job as a finance analyst.

But, despite that buttoned-up lifestyle, he also liked to race dirtbikes. In 2002 he was racing when he crashed and injured his arm, just days before a planned family vacation to Hawaii.

His wife insisted he see a doctor before they leave. The doctor confirmed it was broken, and, after it was set, a nurse asked Harris if he'd like to be prescribed something for the pain.

"I turned it down, because I [didn't] have any pain," Harris said. "[The nurse] said, 'No, you want this.'"

Harris filled the prescription and brought it with him to Hawaii. Early in his trip, he started eyeing the bottle of pills.

"It was at night. I was working. Everyone was asleep, and I took one of them," Harris said. "I think it was a Percocet and I don't know if I've ever felt as good as I did in that moment. And that's what kicked it all off."

That first Percocet plunged his life into addiction and darkness. Harris became desperate for pills, doing whatever he could to get his hands on prescriptions - until the law caught up to him.

"I went to jail. Jail!" Harris said. "I couldn't believe that I was there in that moment."

He eventually climbed his way out of the addiction with the help of his wife and fellow Mormons who he says were compassionate and understanding.

Harris, who has been injury prone his whole life, said that marijuana is the only option to manage his pain.
Credit Lee Hale / KUER
Harris, who has been injury prone his whole life, said that marijuana is the only option to manage his pain.

It's against that backdrop that Harris finds himself where he is today. These days he's dealing with some serious medical conditions. A few years back it was a foot injury that got worse and worse. Determined not to go back to opioids he started taking dangerous amounts of ibuprofen, which did irreparable damage to his stomach.

"I literally couldn't eat," Harris said. "I would throw up."

On top of that, the doctors discovered a cyst on his brain. He was having seizures and intense migraines. He was losing sleep and missing work.

Eventually, Harris had an operation where most of the cyst was removed, but his symptoms persisted.

"If I was struggling there was no sleep," Harris said. "That would throw me off. If I don't sleep well I can get migraines. If I get migraines I miss work and then things can fall apart really quickly on me."

Strong pain relievers obviously weren't an option. Over the counter pain meds weren't an option. Harris didn't know what to do.

Last year, he tried marijuana and, it changed everything for him. For the most part, Harris can sleep now. He can eat. He's not missing work. He uses a vape pen to take a dose right after work each day and it does the trick.

"I'm functional. I'm doing great," Harris said.

Harris doesn't blame his fellow Mormons who will vote the way the Church has asked them to. He said if he was in their shoes he'd do the same.

Still, he's ready to get rid of the guilt he feels for breaking the law.

"I don't want to be illegal, anymore," Harris said. "Right now, it's the worst thing about me,"

He's hoping that changes this November.

Copyright 2018 KUER 90.1

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro-apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.