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Should we legalize marijuana?

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When it comes to marijuana matters, is America going to pot? 

Sulpician Father Gerald D. Coleman is Vice President of Corporate Ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System and an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California.

Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

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In 2010 the California Cannabis Initiative qualified for the state’s ballot. If passed, it would have decriminalized certain offenses and permitted personal consumption and cultivation of cannabis sativa, the drug commonly known by its Mexican colloquial name, marijuana, that goes by many names, including grass, reefer, pot, dope, weed, bud, Mary Jane, and hippie lettuce. The debate about this ballot here in California was contentious, and ultimately the initiative failed, being opposed by 53.5 percent of voters. This provoked me to learn more about cannabis, which raised for me several moral and social concerns about its decriminalization.

Though the California initiative was defeated, support for changing the laws on marijuana usage has increased nationwide. Fifty-eight percent of Americans now support legalization of medical marijuana, according to the findings of the CNN/ORC International survey released in January 6. This is the highest percentage of support for medical marijuana ever recorded, and it marks a 12 percent jump in support since 2012. A recent survey in the New England Journal of Medicine also indicates strong support for medical marijuana.

Commentators describe this growing support as “a tectonic generational shift” and “a major milestone,” comparing the legalization of marijuana to same-sex marriage, noting that both have moved from outlier issues just a decade ago to mainstream issues today. Age, not religion, is the strongest predictor in attitudes about the legalization and morality of medical and recreational marijuana usage. Young adults (18-29) are more than twice as likely as seniors (65 and older) to support legalization, while seniors tend to believe that marijuana use is a sign of America’s moral decline.

Even though the Federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance—along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD, implying that it has a high potential for abuse—about 20 states allow the use of medical marijuana. The drug itself is composed of at least 85 diverse chemical compounds, with THC being the primary psychoactive compound that stimulates the brain to release dopamine, creating euphoria, while often inducing hallucinations and delusions. CBD is the major constituent primarily responsible for alleviating certain medical problems. In reality, however, marijuana dispensaries make their money on products that are high in the psychoactive compound and low in the component that offers medical benefits.

In 2013, voters in Colorado and Washington State decided to become the first in the nation to legalize and regulate small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The U.S. Justice Department will not challenge the legality of these referendums provided that these states maintain strict rules regarding the drug’s sale and distribution, and keep it away from children, drug cartels, federal property, and out of other states. Colorado’s recreational use of marijuana became effective on January 1, where an ounce costs about $200 or more (nearly double the price of medical marijuana). California is poised to introduce a similar referendum in 2014, and a handful of other states by 2016.

Colorado is projected to take in $67 million in marijuana taxes in 2014, the first $40 million earmarked for school construction. A partner in four Denver-area dispensaries comments, “We want to be transparent, legit, and recognized as an industry that pays millions of dollars in taxes a year.”

Federal law prevents more than half of Colorado’s legal marijuana merchants from using bank accounts or credit cards. This forces a multimillion dollar business to operate in cash often stored in back rooms, warehouses, and safes. This lack of access to banking is the single most dangerous aspect of legal marijuana. Attorney General Eric Holder said on January 23 that lawful marijuana business should have access to the American banking system and the government would soon offer rules to make this happen.

In his 2012 book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific  (Scribner), Martin Lee concludes that marijuana is by far “the most popular illicit substance in the U.S., with 10,000 tons consumed yearly by Americans in their college dorms, suburban homes, housing projects, and gated mansions. Pot smoking cuts across racial, class, and gender lines.” It is estimated that 2 million Americans use marijuana every day for either medical or recreational purposes.

Compassionate use of marijuana for medical reasons has proven immensely effective, helping patients with chronic diseases, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis spasms, bipolar disorder, relieving nausea associated with chemotherapy, and serving as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients. As demonstrated in Weed, the August 2013 documentary by CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, families have found marijuana nothing short of miraculous for children with severe autism. While the use of marijuana for medical purposes has proven effective, it is too soon to assess short and long-term effects of recreational marijuana.

It is critical to address certain social and moral issues before more states imitate the referendums of Colorado and Washington State. First, there is no hard evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug to the use of other stimulants such as heroin. However, Smoke Signals testifies that troubled adolescents who start smoking marijuana at a young age are more likely to become problem users, drop out of school, and display various behavioral problems. Seventeen percent of adolescents who use marijuana regularly become addicted to its use. Roughly 36 percent of 12th graders reported having used marijuana in 2013. This is a serious moral and social issue that legalization will only exasperate, no matter what safeguards are in place.

Also of grave concern is the fact that Colorado toddlers and children are already showing up at emergency rooms after eating edibles such as marijuana-infused brownies, some children having to be placed in intensive care. Some studies have shown a marked reduction in white blood cell response, the body’s prime defense against infection, in marijuana smokers of any age.

The marijuana experiment in Colorado and Washington State demands a four-fold scrutiny: Marijuana sold at retail shops costs more than illegal marijuana and enhances the future of black market sales; marketing recreational use of marijuana might deliberately target minors; cross-border trafficking may increase; and the use of one substance might well encourage the use of others, creating dire public health problems.

In a recent interview with the editor of The New Yorker, President Barack Obama said that pot use is no more dangerous than alcohol. He views its use as a bad habit, not much different from cigarettes. Obama argues that the “war on weed” has disproportionately affected minorities and teenagers of color, mostly African Americans. It is true that this “war” raises serious social justice issues as it disproportionately affects minorities who are arrested, prosecuted and jailed for possession of marijuana, while spending an inordinate amount of tax dollars to rein in and punish pot smokers.

Obama is wrong, however, in placing marijuana use on a par with cigarettes or alcohol. This is a dangerous message that tells kids that “doing drugs is not a big deal.” A 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 4.3 million Americans have “marijuana dependence,” and many of these are adolescents. Legalizing it would open the door to more abuse. Pop star Lady Gaga recently disclosed, for instance, that she smokes up to 20 joints a day as a form of “self-medication” for anxiety, and “numbing myself completely.”

Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God, and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, we must take reasonable care of them. Legalizing the use of recreational marijuana translates as permissiveness, with little or no consideration of one’s bodily and spiritual health.

Marijuana is a drug and an intoxicant potentially damaging to the integrity of one’s body and soul, and abuses the Catholic virtue of temperance (as outlined in the Catechism). The Catholic moral tradition teaches that for human persons to flourish, we must use our reason to decide what is for our well-being. If any activity undermines or degrades our rational capacities, we have moral reasons to avoid that activity. The THC level in recreational marijuana often induces hallucinations and delusions and diminishes the use of one’s full reasoning abilities. In fact, 15 percent of all auto accidents are attributed to marijuana use.

It is premature to stampede into a permissive attitude toward the recreational use of marijuana. During his visit to Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis spoke out against the “liberalization of drug use.” Drug problems, he said, already ravage the lives of young people and society should not multiply this problem exponentially. Instead of sowing the seeds of “suffering and death,” Francis calls for “educating young people in the values that build up life in society.” When it comes to decriminalizing the use of marijuana in the United States, we should heed Francis’ call.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Brett Levin