Marijuana Legalization Is on the Ballot in 5 States: What Should Catholics Think?

Earlier this month President Joe Biden issued an executive order granting pardons for all federal marijuana possession convictions.

Marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level, has been legalized in 19 states and the District of Columbia over the past decade.
Marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level, has been legalized in 19 states and the District of Columbia over the past decade. (photo: ImFriday / Shutterstock)

On Nov. 8 voters in five states — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota — will decide on whether to legalize recreational marijuana use. 

Catholic bishops in several of those states have urged voters to reject ballot measures that would legalize marijuana, citing the Church’s teaching on the physical and spiritual harms of drug use, as well as the adverse effects of drugs on society and the family. 

Marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level, has been legalized in 19 states and the District of Columbia over the past decade. Earlier this month President Joe Biden issued an executive order granting pardons for all federal marijuana possession convictions. 

In Missouri, the state’s Catholic bishops issued a joint statement urging voters to reject the proposal known as Amendment 3, which needs a simple majority to pass. The amendment would “remove state prohibitions on the purchase, possession, consumption, use, delivery, manufacture and sale of marijuana for personal use for adults over the age of 21.” The state legalized marijuana for medical use in 2018. 

Missouri’s bishops expressed serious concerns about the societal costs of legal marijuana, which they said would likely outweigh the benefits of the revenue the state would collect by taxing the industry. 

“We know that regular marijuana use has been connected to respiratory problems; mental health issues (including increased anxiety and suicidal thoughts); and learning, memory and attention loss,” the Missouri bishops stated.

“In addition to impacting worker productivity and safety, increased marijuana use could hinder individuals’ ability to find or keep meaningful employment, especially in jobs that require drug testing.”

Legalization sends the message — especially for young people — that marijuana is safe and socially acceptable, and will likely increase teen usage rates, the bishops said. They urged, instead of legalization, the addressing of underlying social and economic issues that can lead to substance abuse.

The Catholic bishops of South Dakota in a September statement urged voters to reject Measure 27 — which would legalize the possession, use, and distribution of marijuana — due to “the harms that legalizing marijuana will bring to individuals, families, and our state.” 

The bishops of neighboring North Dakota released a similar statement, saying legalization “does not advance the common good and poses harm to families, children, our most vulnerable, and the community. Instead, it signals that marijuana is safe, without regard for those families and communities it leaves behind.”

Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas’ sole diocese, noted Sept. 29 that “the Church has no moral objection to the medical use of marijuana, just like any other drug, when used for a genuine medical purpose.”

“Legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, on the other hand, would be a disaster for our state,” Taylor continued, citing medical evidence on how marijuana negatively affects developing brains and statistics on the rise of various societal problems, such as road accidents caused by impaired drivers, in states that have legalized weed. 

“Legalizing a drug for recreational use that causes these effects on the human body, particularly our youth, is not a path civil society should choose to take,” Taylor said. 

Hashing Out a Catholic Response

Pope Francis has spoken out against even the partial legalization of so-called “soft drugs.”

"Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!” the pope said in a 2014 address to the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome.

“Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise…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."

While the Catholic Church does not teach that the use of marijuana specifically is inherently sinful, paragraph 2291 of the Catechism speaks about the use of drugs in general, describing as a “grave offense” their use apart from strictly therapeutic reasons. It also states in paragraph 2211 that the political community has a duty to protect the security and health of families, especially with respect to drugs.

“The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life,” the Catechism says. 

Jared Staudt, a theologian and professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver, disagrees with the view that marijuana is similar to alcohol. He told CNA that the use of marijuana to get “high” would be morally equivalent to the abuse of alcohol, as both impair the proper use of reason, which is at the center of human dignity and our ability to make free and rational choices.

“We are often told that we should not legislate morality and that if someone chooses to consume drugs they should be permitted to do so,” Staudt said in written answers to CNA.

“The kind of moral libertarianism, however, degrades our society…The whole purpose of society and law is to achieve real goods together.”

The use of marijuana to get high can lead people to “check out” and escape the difficulties of life, rather than take responsibility and turn to God for strength, Staudt said. 

“As more people in our country use drugs, this only accelerates our cultural decline as more people refuse to sacrifice themselves for greater goods, committing themselves to family life and the work needed to build up society,” he said. 

Staudt’s native Colorado — which was one of the first states to legalize recreational weed, in 2012 — has seen demonstrably higher rates of teen marijuana usage, traffic accidents, homelessness, and drug-related violence since legalization. 

“​​If something is harmful to one’s bodily, moral, and spiritual health then the Church must oppose it for the good of the soul. Society also has a responsibility not to affirm as good something that is actually harmful, which is happening all too often,” Staudt said. 

“When something is legalized, it communicates a message that it is not problematic. The penalties associated with the use of drugs, however, is another matter, and it is possible for someone to hold that the penalties for marijuana use have been too harsh.”