The Cannabis Issue | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Cannabis Issue 

Examining the hurdles Utah has to jump through to clear the way for medical cannabis.

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click to enlarge Mark Madsen, pictured in white, tours the Andes ahead of moving to Peru to start a medical cannabis business. - COURTESY MARK MADSEN
  • Courtesy Mark Madsen
  • Mark Madsen, pictured in white, tours the Andes ahead of moving to Peru to start a medical cannabis business.

It's a Mad, Madsen World
Two years after retiring from the Legislature, former Sen. Mark Madsen is finally ready to leave the country.

By Ray Howze

More than two years after Utah Sen. Mark Madsen retired from the Legislature, he's finally ready to pack up and move on.

During those 24-plus months of life outside the public sphere, the former senator has been busy. By the end of the month, he will make good on his promise to move his family to Peru.

In Madsen's final year as a senator, he mounted a fierce fight to pass his whole-plant medical cannabis bill. It failed, perhaps not surprising to Utahns who have watched lawmakers debate the issue for years. It's also one reason the ballot initiative for medical cannabis will be decided by voters come November. After Madsen's failed effort, though, he told local news media he was ready to leave and felt Utah was "not welcoming to people who want to live their lives and be free to make choices for themselves."

City Weekly caught up with Madsen to learn what he's been up to before he heads to South America. Preparing to move to a foreign country hasn't been quick, Madsen says. He will be running a medical cannabis business once everything is approved in Peru.

"The legislation has passed, the rule-making and public comments are going to be over in mid-August," Madsen says. "The political leadership and the environment is completely different. All of South America is going this direction."

Madsen isn't wrong. South America, in general, is becoming more welcoming to legal uses of marijuana. According to a report released by Arcview Market Research in partnership with BDS Analytics earlier this year, legal marijuana sales on the continent are expected to go from $125 million this year to $776 million by 2027.

Madsen says the family has purchased property near a beach in Lima, Peru, and are looking forward to the next chapter in their lives. The Columbine, Colo., native admits Utah was never a final destination, though he did remain here longer than expected. After moving here to attend law school, the BYU grad ended up "falling back into local politics" and served as a state senator from 2005-16.

As a self-described Libertarian, Madsen says he's looking forward to Peru's way of life and the "more freedoms" he'll enjoy. Not to mention, the opportunity to use medical cannabis to treat his chronic pain.

Far from looking ahead to lazy afternoons on the lido deck, Madsen says he's ready for his new role as medical cannabis advocate. After his senate career, Madsen traveled to Peru with friends and family and while in the Andes, he suffered from altitude sickness. He says he was able to smoke some medical cannabis to settle his stomach and felt better. But following the trip, he started getting more calls and text messages from colleagues that told him people in Peru were looking for someone who could help with the medical cannabis approval process in the country. That's when Madsen says plans to move there really started to pick up.

"It's a different marketplace; they don't even sell opioids," he says about his new home. "They have no market alternative, really, other than alcohol. We've met with the department of health down there ... the substitute [for pain medication] is alcohol and we know from history that alcohol numbs the pain, but we've got people down there that are drinking themselves to sleep every night so they're very eager to see how making medical cannabis offsets the alcohol use."

In Utah, Madsen says he found himself butting heads with other Republicans at times, especially when it came to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he still is a "1,000-percent church-going Mormon." He learned as early as his first year in the Legislature what it would be like to work with the church's lobbyists. As a legislator, he says, he never had a chance to talk to high-ranking LDS officials. Instead, "it's always filtered through someone else, at least when you're coming from my political perspective."

Whether the issue was about gun rights, immigration or even cannabis, he says he wishes the church would be "consistent in applying its principles." For example, he points out the church frequently says it needs to show compassion when regarding immigration and keeping families together, but "all those principles seem to get lost when it comes to [cannabis] patients."

"I butted heads with the church on a lot of things," Madsen says. "When I say 'the church,' I really want to be clear—I don't say a word against the ordained authorities of the church or the apostles, but the fact of the matter is, none of them ever bothered to come and talk to a lowly state senator, I always met with their front people—the bureaucracy.

"I was never able to have a substantive conversation with anyone in authority or anyone ordained, so I had no idea what their positions were on these issues."

Carl Wimmer, another fellow legislator who not only left Capitol Hill but the church, too, says he sees some similarities between himself and Madsen. The two, both Republicans, worked on various pieces of legislation together including gun rights and bills tightening laws on sex offenders. Wimmer called Madsen a "good, good person and a great senator."

"The fact is that at the end of his political career, Mark was burned by his own church leaders," Wimmer says. "He was told multiple times they would not come out publicly and oppose him or fight him in his efforts toward legalization of medical cannabis and that simply didn't happen—they came out and they torched his legislation multiple times."

Another former legislator, Steve Urquhart, worked closely with Madsen on the medical cannabis bill. Like Madsen, he retired from the Legislature in 2016, citing conflicts with lobbyists and the LDS church. Urquhart has since publicly stated he didn't like how the church acts at times in "surreptitious manners" to kill legislation. However, he says, he has faith in Utah voters come November.

"At the end of the day, Mark is going to have his victory and he should be proud of the role he's had," he says. "The public is going to pass it and the only opposition, really, is the church and UMA—but it's just the church. Everyone it can convince to vote against it, it already has convinced."

Since retiring from public service, Madsen has spent his time between Utah and Portland, Ore. In Portland, he can access medical marijuana. His wife, Erin, says she also has become a strong proponent of the drug, even though she doesn't use it herself. She would like others to have the option to use it, such as her mom who died of cancer a few years ago. Her mother instead had to rely on fentanyl and morphine.

"One of our best doctors said, 'What I love about cannabis is there are a lot of different ways you can use it and as doctors, we often say we need another tool in the toolbox. What I love about cannabis is it's a Leatherman,'" Erin Madsen recalls. "What I like about cannabis is you can use it as a patch; it doesn't need fat to metabolize. It goes through your veins, so as long as your blood is circulating, you can use a patch."

Madsen urges Utahns to read the Proposition 2's text before they vote in November. He says he worries about other types of information published by groups such as the Utah Medical Association or the list of "legal issues" published by the LDS church's law firm of Kirton McConkie. The initiative, he says, is "only 22 pages," while other publications, such as Libertas Utah's response to the Kirton McConkie piece is "as long as 44 pages."

"Reading the initiative is so important," Madsen underscores. "I believe people are smart enough to figure this out themselves ... It's written oddly because it's law, but I believe 98 percent of the people in Utah are smart enough to read that thing for themselves and they can come to their own conclusions."

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