As laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana use continue to spread like, well, like a weed across the country, there seems to be little hope in stopping its momentum. According to NORML, a lobbying group dedicated “to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable,” the “era of marijuana legalization is upon us.” Perhaps it is a sign that its use is more prevalent than we think, but the push back from American Catholics (with the exception of Cardinal O’Malley in Boston) has been uninspired at best. It is with that response in mind, that this author attempts to clear the haze surrounding the issue of marijuana use.
Why Sin is Wrong
In a world where the only real sin is to call something a sin, it is important for us to frame what it is that makes marijuana use wrong. Otherwise, it appears that Christians are always on the prowl looking for people who might actually be having some fun in the valley of tears. Sin is an offense against God, but only in the sense that it tries to usurp His role as Creator. As Creator of our human nature, He is the judge as to what constitutes the best use of that nature so that we can truly thrive and fulfill what we were made for. As creatures who have exercise of their own freedom, we can, in a sense, choose those things that ultimately harm us. But just as violating the law of gravity has dire consequences, so too does choosing against the law of freedom. We will ultimately not thrive. So while sin is an offense against God, it ultimately means doing something that is harmful to us. This is why St. Thomas said “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good” (SCG, 3, 122).
This particular way of looking at sin is particularly important in today’s culture where there is such an emphasis on freedom such that it trumps law. Put simply, some acts are in accord with the proper use of man’s nature, which we call good, and some are not, which we call evil. Reason recognizes these goods as true goods and commands that they be protected and preserved. Thus the moral Law is not a bunch of arbitrary rules but dictates of reason that keep us on the path to happiness, both natural and supernatural.
It is with this view of sin in mind, that we can examine marijuana use. To use a common idiom, marijuana use is wrong because you get stoned. That is you lose, even though temporarily, the use of our distinctly human capacity to reason. We become, as it were, like stones. In other words, marijuana turns us into something less than human by depriving us of our use of reason.
There are, some might object, other things that cause the temporary loss of our reason that we would not classify as wrong: things like painkillers, laughing gas, even sleep. What makes marijuana and other recreational drugs like it different? In each of the other examples conscious experience is not treated as an evil, as something to be avoided (and if it was as in the case where someone sleeps too much just to avoid life then it would be wrong). To deliberately pursue a chemically-altered state of mind is always immoral because it does direct harm to the good of our reason.
Alcohol and Marijuana Use
I have deliberately avoided mentioning the use of alcohol up to this point in order to make the principles clear, but no discussion of marijuana use and its legalization can avoid this topic. Drunkenness, like “getting stoned”, is always objectively wrong. But alcohol is different in that it can be used “responsibly.” By temperately approaching alcohol, it can have its intended effect of raising one’s spirits (which is where we get the name Spirits from) without altering one’s level of consciousness. This is why Catholics have never shied away from imbibing strong drinks. It may represent a temptation to abuse, but with temperance it is one of the goods of this life. I like to think that one of the reasons why the Bride and Groom at Cana ran out of wine was because Our Lord and His followers had showed up unexpectedly. If nothing else, He clearly had some on hand at the Last Supper.
This connection between alcohol and pot is worth examining a little further because the two are often conflated in public discourse. The argument goes that because “alcohol is a drug and legal, therefore, marijuana, which is a somewhat harmless recreational drug ought to be legal as well.” Recalling that a good law is one that helps people to be good, we can say that the reasoning here is faulty. In the social realm, temperate use of alcohol can be seen as a good in that it stimulates social interaction and appears to have positive physiological health benefits. Therefore any laws governing its use ought to promote temperance (such as penalties for drunkenness, age restrictions, limiting places and times of purchase, etc.). Pot, on the other hand cannot be used moderately. There is no such thing as “responsible” use of pot since its mind-altering effects are felt immediately
The fact that we even have to get into the “why” using pot is wrong shows us the reason why a libertarian approach would not work. “If someone wants to smoke a little weed, who are we to stop them?” While it may seem like a benign, personal vice, we can never forget that the law is a great moral teacher. Most, especially those divorced from Christian morality, equate morality and legality. By criminalizing its use, the law remains connected to the truth. The fact that most people cannot see why it is wrong is an argument for keeping it legal, especially when the best argument for de-criminalizing is license masquerading as liberty. Freedom does not mean to do whatever you want as long as no one else is harmed by it, but to exercise our ability to reach our God-given potential. Far from being an exercise in freedom (which requires the use of reason), marijuana use actually makes us slaves to a less than human craving. Given this and the “substantial adverse effects” of marijuana use, it is hard to fathom why anyone would promote its legalization.