On Drugs

Overdose in Mormon country: An alternative tour of Utah

How does addiction arise in a community that frowns on drinking coffee?

On Drugs team

March 06, 2018

The Mormon Temple is shown at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

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There’s an expectation that members of the Church of Latter Day Saints will live with chastity and modesty in order to secure a place in heaven. And yet, Utah, the heart of Mormonism, has one of the highest overdose rates in the U-S. In this episode of On Drugs, we hit the road to investigate why.  49:03

In our research this season, we came across a statistic that surprised us: Utah — a state where 60 per cent of the population identifies as Mormon — has one of the highest rates of drug overdose death in the United States.

We wanted to know why.

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So for this episode of On Drugs, we sent host Geoff Turner to Salt Lake City to explore religion and addiction in Mormon country, where the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) is very much present in the social, cultural and political lives of Utahns.

Mindy Vincent, founder of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, in Salt Lake City. (Geoff Turner/CBC)

Mindy Vincent is one such Utahn. She is the founder of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, and there's a very personal connection to the work she does. Vincent lived 15 years with an addiction to crystal meth. Her father and brother have faced drug addiction as well, as did her sister, who died of an opioid overdose in 2016.

Vincent grew up LDS and says the high moral standards that church members are expected to adhere to can be devastating for those who fail to meet perfection. And that failure can mean losing the support network you need to help you recover.

"The only way I could get my family's love back was through church, through reading the scriptures, and if I just loved God enough everything would be OK," says Vincent. "When you reject that and you're like, 'you know that's just not part of my belief system,' then your family cuts you off … I mean now you've broken your parents' heart."

'Opiods have become a means of escape' 

Mormons believe that only the perfect will reach the highest kingdom of heaven. And to be perfect, a Mormon is expected to live with chastity and modesty, and to abstain from anything that "creates an appetite for itself" — alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, recreational drugs.

'Opioids have become a means of escape for [Mormons] because they can rationalize that 'Hey, I'm not drinking, but something is relieving the stress and the pain and the feelings of guilt that are engaging my soul every day.'' -Dan Snarr

But because they're prescribed by a doctor, Dan Snarr says that some LDS members may not think of opioids as illicit drugs.

Snarr is the former mayor of Murray, Utah and a devout Mormon and family man. Ten years ago, he lost his son Denver to an opioid overdose.

Snarr says that Denver had been having a hard time with church's expectations of perfection before he died.

"He said that, 'I just I couldn't keep up with all of the things that I was supposed to be doing to make my life the best life possible, and I'd made too many mistakes,'" Snarr says.

Snarr says it's time for the church to recognize that it has a role in the current overdose crisis, and that it needs to "stop being so damned condemning" of its members.

"Opioids have become a means of escape for [Mormons]," says Snarr, "because they can rationalize that 'Hey, I'm not drinking, but something is relieving the stress and the pain and the feelings of guilt that are engaging my soul every day.'"

Dan Snarr at his home in Murray, Utah. (Geoff Turner/CBC)

Every community should look inward

But not everyone we met drew a straight line between moral expectation and drug use.

Terell is homeless and living with addiction in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park. Though he grew up in the Mormon faith, he says that religion played no part in his choosing the life he has.

David Anisman, a public health specialist with the University of Utah Medical Center, has tracked the opioid crisis carefully. He says we need to be careful about making any conclusive connection between faith and addiction.

Addiction is a widespread problem that affects every demographic, he says. We all need to talk about it.

"Every community — whether it's the LDS church or other religious communities or ethnic communities — should look inward and say: in what way are we causing stresses for our community that might drive them to do anything inappropriate?", he says, "and what can we do to mitigate that?"