DENVER — When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, many people worried. The opposition came from a wide range of organizations — including grassroots groups, law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church.
Three years later, the results are in.
“It has changed society tremendously, and not for the good,” said Deacon Ernest Martinez of Denver, a police command officer for the Denver Police Department for 35 years.
“Every statistical study has seen an increase in marijuana use,” he said. “There has been an increase in youths going to rehab for addiction to marijuana. There have been increases in car accidents. There has been an increase in fatalities related to marijuana. There has been an increase in workplace incidences related to marijuana and a decrease in productivity. And there has been an increase in robberies.”
The Trump administration signaled that it shares the doubts regarding the merits of marijuana legalization. On Jan. 4 — three days after California followed Colorado’s lead in legalizing recreational consumption — Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo announcing that the federal government was revoking the Obama administration’s policy of not enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have decriminalized it.
“This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs,” the memo stated.
How It Changed Colorado
E. Christian Brugger, senior research scholar and fellow of ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation, saw the changes firsthand as a father of five children when he lived in Colorado.
“There has been nothing good for Colorado, except for maybe the increased tax revenue. But even then, it is a mixed bag. Many people have moved to Colorado to exploit legalized marijuana — so housing prices have increased. There is more traffic downtown. You can find marijuana dispensaries all over the place, especially in the poorer parts of town. It is becoming part of the state’s subculture,” said Brugger.
The smell of marijuana is ubiquitous in the state now — so much so that there has been a marked increase in complaints to the police about the smell.
For those who own ski resorts, the emergence of marijuana smokers has been troubling, according to Brugger.
“They have rules about not letting you on the slopes if you have been smoking pot — but it’s not always easy to tell,” he said.
Anecdotally, many families from Colorado now drive to Utah to ski because it is deemed safer and more family-friendly.
Conversely, Colorado has seen an increase in “marijuana tourism” — people moving in just to smoke pot.
How Marijuana Got Legalized
The fight to legalize marijuana has pitted relatively poor grassroots groups who oppose it against wealthy individuals who support it. Marijuana is currently legal for recreational use in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado. It will become legal next year in Nevada, Massachusetts, California and Maine. Efforts to legalize pot were stopped this year in Rhode Island and Vermont.
“The push to legalize marijuana started with George Soros; Daniel Lewis, the heir of the co-founder of Progressive Insurance; Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and first president of Facebook; and John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix. All have given massive funding to the efforts to legalize,” said Kevin Sabet, co-founder of SMART Approaches to Marijuana, a group opposed to the legalization of marijuana.
“The people who fought for it in Colorado were single people, not families,” said Brugger. “Pot-smoking young people pushed it through a progressive legislature and argued that there would be more taxes for education. But the only benefit now seems to be for those who make money from it and those who smoke it.”
According to Deacon Martinez, members of an Eastern European drug mafia have moved into Colorado to grow marijuana illegally.
“People will rent houses and grow between 400 and 1,000 plants,” said Deacon Martinez. “They divert power illegally and reconstruct the air-conditioning units. There is not a two-block area in metro Denver that does not have houses growing it illegally — without the state and local licenses that they need.”
According to the constitutional amendment in Colorado, anyone can grow up to six plants in his or her own home.
“But how do you enforce that?” said Deacon Martinez.
The Reality of Addiction
Dr. Jeff Berger is the medical director for Guest House, a rehabilitation center for priests who suffer from alcoholism and other addictions. He has been treating addicts for 34 years.
“We know that, generally, if you give medical marijuana to anyone, 9% will become addicted to it,” said Berger. “What happens in addiction is: It’s a disease process which ruins a person’s life and everyone around them. What I struggle with is: Why would anyone prescribe a medicine that has a 9% addiction rate?”
Berger notes that the marijuana that is grown now is far different from that produced in the 1960s.
“THC is the chemical in marijuana which causes addiction,” he said. “In the 1960s, pot had a 4% THC content. Today it is grown at 11%. It has been grown to 31%.”
A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2014 by Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, found that the addiction rate for adolescents was 17% and 25% to 50% for daily users. The study also found cognitive impairment, with lower IQ among those who were frequent users in adolescence.
“The effects of a drug on individual health are determined not only by its pharmacologic properties but also by its availability and social acceptability. In this respect, legal drugs offer a sobering perspective, accounting for the greatest burden of disease associated with drugs, not because they are more dangerous than illegal drugs but because their legal status allows for more widespread exposure,” wrote Dr. Volkow in her conclusion.
Marijuana has been linked to increased depression, anxiety, psychosis and suicide attempts.
“How people feel about their lives after using pot for a few years tends to score lower,” said Berger.
How to Respond as Catholics
The Bible does not speak about marijuana at all. However, Scripture has plenty to say about the problem of drinking too much.
“Sacred Scripture says a lot about drunkenness. St. Paul characterizes the behavior and actions of those who drink too much as inconsistent with the Gospel,” said Brugger. “Jesus speaks about what happens when the Master comes back and finds his servants drunk and beating the other slaves. Drunkenness is the opposite of watchfulness.”
Because marijuana, like alcohol, clouds mental faculties, it means that people who smoke pot can become unable to address anything spiritual.
“You are willing yourself to get to a condition where you are unable to attend to the voice of the Lord. You just won’t have a vibrant prayer life,” said Brugger.
In a 2014 address to participants of the International Drug Enforcement Conference, Pope Francis denounced all forms of drug use, although he didn’t cite marijuana specifically.
“Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: The problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!” he stated. “Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil, there can be no yielding or compromise.”
Added the Holy Father, “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”
Helping Those Addicted
Deacon Martinez believes that in states where marijuana is on the increase — as it is in states that have legalized it — Catholics will have to attend to those who have fallen into addiction.
“Part of our call is to reach out to the peripheries, to those who are susceptible to addiction and moral relativism,” said Deacon Martinez. “We need to catechize, but we are barely at the beginning.”
In his parish of Notre Dame in Denver, Deacon Martinez has given talks about drug use during Respect Life Month.
“I talk about how we have to respect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit and how we should not hurt ourselves. I try to meet people where they are at. After these homilies, several parishioners called me to talk about their addictions,” he said.
When people compare marijuana to alcohol, some argue that prohibiting it is worse and recall the Prohibition in the U.S. in 1920s. But opponents of pot do not buy this argument.
“Alcohol is tolerated, but it is not great for society. Remember that alcohol had been accepted in society for thousands of years before its prohibition. Marijuana has been used by only a fraction of the population in society,” said Sabet.
“With regards to marijuana, let’s not let the horse out of the stable. Legalized marijuana means massive commercialization, and time will show that it is an unmitigated public disaster.”
Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.
Key findings from the “National Survey on Drug Use and Health,” published in December 2017:
- Pot use among Colorado teens, ages 12 to 17, is 34% higher than the national teen average. Colorado teens are second in pot first-time use, only to Alaska teens, where marijuana is also legal.
- Colorado teens’ current use is 11.13% of all those in that age group. This is significantly higher than the 7.6% use a decade ago.
- Marijuana use among Colorado’s young adults, 18 to 24 years old, also continues to grow. Nearly one-third of people in this age group reported use of pot in the last month, a record 32.2% rate that has increased by 1.45% since last year and 29.8% since 2009. Colorado’s young adults lead the nation in first-time pot use.
Key findings from a 2017 study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Report, which studies the impact of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado):
- Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 66% in the four-year period since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana (2013 to 2016), compared to the four-year period of 2009 to 2012.
- Adult past-month marijuana use increased by 71% in the three-year period (2013-2015) since Colorado legalized marijuana use, compared to the three-year average prior to legalization (2010 to 2012).
- Colorado adults ranked No. 1 in the nation for past-month marijuana use, up from No. 8 in 2005-2006.
- The yearly rate of emergency-department visits related to marijuana increased 35% since legalization.
- Marijuana-related hospitalization increased by 72% since legalization.
- Exposure to marijuana increased by 210%.
- Highway interdictions of marijuana increased 43% in a four-year period (2013 to 2016).
- Of the 346 highway interdictions in 2016, there were 36 different states destined to receive marijuana from Colorado.