Marijuana, Morality, and the Mind

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A Marijuana Plant

So, it’s 4/20, which is like some kind of holy day for pot smokers.

Thus, it seems like a good time to deal with the question: is it a sin to smoke Marijuana?  Once upon a time, it was illegal everywhere and so the answer was easy: it’s sinful to break the law, so it would sinful to smoke an illegal substance.  In recent years, however, a number of states legalized the substance for medical and even recreation use.  Now, we have to do a little more work to answer the question: is it a sin?

I’ll cut to the chase.  Yes, it is a sin to smoke Marijuana for fun because cannabis harms the rational functioning of the mind.  I’ve never smoked it, but I know people who have and you can listen to this podcast that features one such person.  The long and short of it is that even a small high from cannabis inhibits the rational ability of the human person in a way that one or two alcoholic drinks does not;  Doing that on purpose is sinful.  You can read Taylor Marshall’s excellent analysis if you want more explanation.

That’s not even addressing the question of the long term damage to your health, including impairing proper development of the brain in adolescents.

But, what about medical use?

Now, that’s a different story.  I do not possess any medical expertise, but I am told that there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana.  The fact is that we already use serious drugs for medical use and that morphine is basically a form of heroin.  When dealing with illness and pain management, it is allowed to use drugs to treat the pain, if the intent is pain management and not getting high.  It is basically a way of applying the principle of “double effect,” which gives the criteria for doing something that has both good and evil consequences.

So, how do we respond to legalization?

That is a much tougher question.  There are multiple principles to consider and some simple practical realities.  The state should not encourage sinful behavior, but it also cannot make each and every sinful act illegal.  Some would say that legalization is basically inevitable and that fighting it is a waste of energy when we have bigger fish to fry.  There is the real concern that it should be available as medicine for those who truly benefit from it.  Yet, in every state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use (sinful), they first legalized it for medical use (not always sinful).  So, that raises the question of whether the medical need is great enough to run the risk of contributing to the eventual legalization of recreational use.Image result for wikimedia voting

Unlike more severe issues like abortion and euthanasia, which concern direct harm to the innocent, the legalization of Marijuana has not be authoritatively addressed.  That means we can follow the general principle that concrete political problems allow for a variety of responses by faithful Catholics.  It is sometimes okay to have disagreement between two faithful Catholic voters and/or politicians about specific prudential decisions.  Nonetheless, Catholics are obliged to hold to the moral teachings themselves.  So, as long as both Catholics recognize that deliberately impairing our rationality is sinful, they can come to different conclusions about the government’s response to the criminalization of substances that do such things.

In an ideal world, marijuana would be properly regulated for medical use and forbidden for recreational use.  The world is not ideal and people are going to try to legalize it, so what do we do?  Here are a few things to consider:

  • Stay educated about the medical and social effects of Marijuana use.  Think critically because there is bound to be a lot of skewed information due to the drug’s rising popularity.
  • Avoid using Marijuana yourself and, if at all possible, avoid situations where your presence indicates approval of its use.  Concerts are one thing because its such a large crowd and outside your control. But, it is perfectly reasonable, though perhaps a little difficult, to stay away from smaller parties and social gatherings where pot-smoking features prominently.
  • Remember that the law is supposed to support morality, so actually consider what political response might be appropriate.  Town halls?  Letters and calls to legislators?
  • Dig deeper to understand why marijuana (and other drug) use is so prevalent and reflect on ways to address the deeper problem.  While chemical hooks in various drugs are a problem, many studies are highlighting the driving force of isolation and stress.  In many ways, a more robust evangelization can address the drug problem because the fulfillment and peace that are found only in God go a long way to alleviate the kind of existential boredom and hedonism that make drug use so attractive.
  • Keep the conversation going.  We must be wary of the ways the indifference contributes to social and moral decline.  Even if we can’t score a major political or even social victory, to do and say nothing tells everyone that nothing is wrong.

Posted by Fr. Albert

Fr. Alexander Albert is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. He was ordained a priest in June of 2016 after receiving an M.A. in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He currently serves as the Parochial Vicar for St. Peter's Catholic Church in New Iberia, Louisiana. He takes an interest in Spiritual Theology and has his own blog, Albert The Ordinary, where he posts homilies and analyzes movies.