E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian. He has Master degrees in moral theology and moral philosophy from Seton Hall, Harvard and Oxford Universities and received his D.Phil. (Ph.D.) in Christian ethics from Oxford in 2000. Christian has published two books, the most recent titled “The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent” (CUA Press, 2017), and over 300 articles in scholarly and popular periodicals on topics in bioethics, sexual ethics, natural law theory, as well as the interdisciplinary field of psychology and Christian anthropology. He writes from his home in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, where he lives with his wife and five children.
Q. Pot smoking is legal in my state. I know pot is a bridge drug to other worse drugs. But I was wondering if occasionally smoking it is okay. My parish priest says there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as I don’t get dependent. What do you think? Thanks, Rahl.
A. I think your priest’s advice is misguided. The simple answer to the title question is: Although it is sometimes morally licit to smoke pot for purposes of healing, it is never licit to smoke it to get high.
“Brain Altering Substances” (BAS)
Medicine uses the term “therapeutic” to refer to something related to facilitating good physical or psychological functioning. Using BAS for therapeutic reasons is using them to obtain real human goods. But most BAS also have harmful effects, which mustn’t be the reason we choose them. In the words of moral theology, we mustn’t intend those effects as ends or means.
We all use BAS sometimes for therapeutic reasons, and many of us use them daily. We drink a cup of coffee or cola for an energy boost; we have a glass of wine to calm feelings of stress after a long day at work; we take antidepressants to ameliorate blue mood, or melatonin or Ambien to help quiet the sleep centers in our brain; we take analgesics to assist with back pain; and occasionally we take very powerful narcotics such as morphine to help relieve severe pain. Each of these can be done quite innocently, as each can be a way of realizing genuine human goods.
Marijuana is a BAS, which too, doctors tell us, can have therapeutic effects. Physicians sometimes prescribe it to aid discomfort from headaches, cancer, glaucoma or nerve pain. But ingesting it also has bad affects.
I may use a BAS — whether Advil, pot or morphine — for therapeutic reasons if two conditions are met:
First, I intend only the therapeutic effect: My intended end is healing, my intended means is the substance’s ameliorating mechanisms, and I merely tolerate — as unintended side effects — the harms caused by using it; second, there must be no other reason for me not to use it.
What are other reasons not to use a BAS (including pot) therapeutically? Whenever using it would be contrary to another moral obligation: for example, such use is illegal where I live; or it places me in a near occasion of sin (e.g., I cannot use it with clinical moderation because of an addiction); or the unintended bad side-effects from using it would be manifestly disproportionate to the benefits; or it would unfairly harm someone else, for example, I’m a father and my therapeutic pot smoking is likely to influence my teenage son to think drug use in general is okay.
These two elements — therapeutic use and fidelity to moral obligations — are noted in the teaching of Pope Pius XII on using painkillers. He taught:
“The Christian, then, is never obliged to accept pain for its own sake. … The patient, anxious to avoid or calm the pain, can in good conscience make use of the means discovered by science and that in themselves are not immoral.” In this way, the Pope continues, “he is seeking, in accord with the ordinance of the Creator, to bring suffering under man’s control.” He goes on to say, however, that a person has an obligation not to seek to relieve suffering “whenever he is faced with the unavoidable alternative of enduring suffering or acting contrary to a moral obligation, either by an action or omission” (Responses to three questions regarding analgesia, 1957).
Some people use BAS, including pot, not for therapeutic reasons, but in order to alter their consciousness for the sake of the experience of the altered state itself — to get high.
Since the highness it causes, however pleasurable, is a bad effect, to intend it as an end or means is to intend harm myself (and to others if I support them in getting high). This is never morally legitimate.
Why is highness a bad effect? Because it entails an alteration and impairment of my sensory, rational and volitional faculties, making it more difficult for me to understand things clearly and to choose well. Although I may tolerate such impairment as a side-effect of taking BAS for therapeutic reasons, to will it for its own sake is wrongful.
One might reply: But when I get high, I do it for the pleasure it brings me. Isn’t a pleasurable experience self-justifying?
No, pleasure of itself is no justification — is not a reason — for acting. Pleasure is good if it arises from the pursuit of real human goods and bad if it arises from what harms human goods. (Think of the pleasure of an athlete versus the pleasure of a sex trafficker.)
Since the pleasure experienced in pot smoking arises from something harmful to us, it is wrong to seek.
Moreover, ingesting marijuana is harmful to our mind and body in a host of other ways. The NIH website lists the following: worsens memory, learning, problem-solving and verbal ability; impairs body movements; increases anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and causes loss of IQ points if heavy use begins in teens; causes hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and psychosis (from long-term use); leads to a decline in academic and career success; increases job absences, accidents and injuries; acts as a “gateway drug” to harder drugs; leads to lower life satisfaction.
Presumably pot smokers do not intend any of these effects; they only want to get high. But we’ve already shown that this is a bad effect. Therefore, getting high is not a reason to smoke pot, but a reason not to. Add to this the many other harms caused by ingesting the THC found in marijuana, and we end up with several reasons not to smoke pot to get high.
Harms to Friendship
Moral theologian Germain Grisez provides (here, see question F, No. 5) another reason. He argues that any use of BAS precisely for the sake of the experience itself is harmful to our relationships.
We take the BAS to alter our conscious experience. But our consciousness is affected only by first affecting our brain and nervous system. We therefore use our bodies as an instrument — a mere means — for achieving a desirable state of consciousness.
If the brain effect were merely tolerated in order to heal ourselves — the bodily-spiritual unity that we are — then the act could be self-integrating.
But we don’t tolerate it to realize any human good; we act for it. We seek the subjective experience, an experience that is incommunicable to any other person, even though we might prefer enjoying it in the midst of people.
In this way, we act not for the sake of our unified selves, but in a way that sets one dimension of ourselves (our consciousness) against another (our body). Instrumentalizing our body in this way is self-alienating.
To enter into human communion — friendship in its various forms — I must have the capacity to give myself, integrated and unalienated, to other people. But seeking the subjective experience damages my capacity to give myself to others. And therefore it damages my pursuit of friendship, which is a basic human good.
Think of the relational mixed signals we get from stoners or alcohol abusers (effusively affectionate, coldly taciturn, unreasonably evasive, bitterly critical, dangerously amorous, pugnacious, etc.). Even when they’re not inebriated, we learn not to trust their relational responses. This is because they lack integrity.
What About for Relaxation?
If it’s okay to drink a glass of wine to calm my feelings of stress after work, why not smoke pot for the same reason? There are two things to say here.
First, to not be intending harm to myself, getting high must be no part of my motive for ingesting the marijuana. Only relaxation. But I expect this is usually counterfactual. How many recreational pot smokers puff a joint or toke a bong with no interest in getting high? Perhaps some. But I expect very few.
Second, even for this small population, it would usually always be wrong to smoke pot since there are other reasonable alternatives for relaxation without the harmful effects of ingesting THC: e.g., lighting a candle and sitting in a hot tub, enjoying a glass of wine with a nice meal; quiet prayer; yoga; meditation; biofeedback; deep breathing; listening to calming music; massage; progressive muscle relaxation; visualization; aromatherapy.
Add to this that my smoking must not be an occasion of scandal to anyone, or a failure to bear Christian witness to the Gospel, or not contribute to the moral license that today surrounds pot smoking, and the cases in which smoking pot to relax would be morally licit are extremely rare if not practically non-existent.