Hazy Effects of Alaska and DC Pot Legalizations Confront the Church

The social effects of legal marijuana are hotly contested, as Church’s clergy and lay leaders have few clues about the landscape of a society that is free to imbibe cannabis.

Cannabis plant
Cannabis plant (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — The Catholic Church has to navigate through a haze of new challenges in Alaska and the District of Columbia, after laws went into effect in late February allowing adults to legally smoke and possess small amounts of marijuana.

The problem is that the social impact of legal recreational marijuana is still not fully charted in the United States. Only Colorado and Washington have legalized the drug’s consumption, and different locales can have circumstances that make it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

“I can’t see any good that will come from the passage of the voter initiative, especially in the lives of our children,” Archbishop Roger Schwietz, of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, told the Register.

Alaska became the third state to make marijuana legal on Feb. 24, while the District of Columbia became the fourth place in the U.S. on Feb. 26. Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia passed voter initiatives in November that legalized the substance, but Oregon’s law becomes effective July 1.

Both the D.C. and Alaska laws allow adults 21 and over to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. Both prohibit smoking in public. Alaska allows persons to carry up to one ounce of marijuana on them, while D.C. allows for two ounces. People may gift, but not sell, an ounce of marijuana to other adults over the age of 21.

The District’s law, however, only goes so far as to legalize personal use, although D.C. Councilmembers are discussing the possibility of legalizing commercial sales of the drug.


Difficult Questions Arise

Heads of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, as well as Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations, met in Alaska in January in a gathering convened by Archbishop Schwietz to discuss their own concerns over the law, particularly its impact on rural communities, and how best to respond.

Archbishop Schweitz expressed concern about the impact that legal marijuana consumption would have on some of Alaska’s already worrisome statistics. He noted that Alaska has six times as many pilots per capita as the rest of the United States, with more fatal aircraft crashes than any other state. The state’s child-welfare services also received 3,331 reports of abuse or neglect per month in 2012, and the suicide rate is twice the national average.

“Marijuana is a psychoactive [mind-altering] drug. Will we outpace ourselves and set the record for three times the national average as a result?” he asked.

These are the questions the archbishop and other religious leaders are asking in Alaska. The legalization in D.C. has also sparked questions.

“It’s too soon to tell quantitatively, but in the past, we’ve seen that in people who use or abuse marijuana it doesn’t always stay as the kind of recreational drug it’s made out to be,” said Erik Salmi, spokesman for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington.

He expects a better picture of the actual impact on the city’s vulnerable populations, such as the homeless and youth, by next year.

“Some of our staff are particularly concerned that, among some of the younger kids or teenagers coming up now, it will only enable it more,” Salmi said.


Baseline Still Developing

Still, observers disagree how much legalizing recreational marijuana has changed the social landscape beyond setting a baseline to measure further changes.

According to an essay by John Walters and David Murray of the Washington-based Hudson Institute, after a full year of legalization, “The arc of [Colorado’s] ‘experiment’ is not in doubt.”

The drug-policy specialists argued from local news reports that arrests for illegal use were up 260%, daily use of the drug is now 35% higher than the national average, youth are being targeted with ads, and “[p]otent drug-laced gummy bears and fruit juices with hallucinogenic effects, featuring cartoon characters, are widespread.”

On the other hand, Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that is behind the model legislation for decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana use, told the Register, “We’re not really seeing huge fluctuations in use where marijuana is legal.”

According to the Colorado Dept. of Health’s “Healthy Kids Colorado” survey of middle-school and high-school students, the first year of legalization (2013) did not see any increase in the number of students who reported either being current users or having used pot ever. In fact, the numbers went down, but not enough to be statistically significant.

Also, traffic fatalities in 2014 dropped from the previous year and were lower overall than the average for the past 13 years, according to the state’s department of transportation.

“The harms of marijuana prohibition greatly outweigh the harms caused by use of the substance,” Fox said, pointing to the financial costs of arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana and the damage a conviction can do to a person’s chances for employment, as well as student and public housing.

“Adults shouldn’t be punished in that manner for something that is safer than alcohol,” he said, arguing both substances should be regulated similarly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, deaths related to alcohol consumption have risen to more than 88,000 per year. While consuming too much alcohol can induce death, the government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website states a life-threatening overdose from marijuana “unlikely.”

Still, according to the NIDA, THC, the active chemical in marijuana, is the second most common drug found in the blood of impaired drivers after alcohol, and its combination with alcohol may increase the impairment of drivers.

The trend in THC potency in marijuana has been going upward, although the greatest increase comes from nondomestic sources. According to the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project, the average THC content in seized cannabis (domestic and nondomestic) was 8.8% in 2008, up from 3.4% in 1993.

“It’s an industry based on addicting people,” said Kimberly Hartke, spokeswoman for Parents Opposed to Pot, an organization that has been fighting legalization in the District of Colombia. She said getting children off marijuana for some families can go into the tens of thousands of dollars: “Addiction treatment costs are bankrupting these families.”

Geoff Bennett, vice president for shelter and community outreach services at Catholic Charities of Denver, said the observation from multiple homeless outreaches is that homelessness has increased since Denver became a destination spot to consume marijuana legally. But that poses a problem when it comes to shelter. Catholic Charities, for example, has a zero-tolerance policy toward consuming alcohol or drugs in its homeless shelters.

“We’ve seen some families with children that have turned down four rooms when they found out they couldn’t smoke in there,” Bennett said. “They’d rather be homeless with their children than not smoke marijuana, and it has happened enough times that it is a significant concern.”

Hartke sees no good from legalizing marijuana: Low taxes encourage consumption, she said, while high taxes, she argued, would keep the black market alive where it is more affordable.

“You can’t license a vice for the tax revenue you get out of it; it just doesn’t work,” she said, arguing that the social costs for tobacco and alcohol have been shown to be “10 times the tax revenues [on them].”


Marijuana Comparisons Difficult

Measuring the social impact of marijuana with tobacco and alcohol is complicated.

Walters and Murray noted that The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, showed marijuana use had “increased odds of school drop-out and suicidal propensity”; that the journal Addiction “confirmed marijuana’s ‘gateway’ effect to other illicit drugs, as well as its link to schizophrenia”; and that The New England Journal of Medicine noted the “risk of psychosis” as well as “destructive effects on memory, cognition and learning” among the findings for marijuana addiction.

Yet, most observers agree, as stated by a 2009 study in Canada, the health costs per user for marijuana are greatly outweighed by those for tobacco and alcohol.

But a World Health Organization (WHO) study cautioned that comparing the health risks of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis “based upon existing patterns of use cannot be used to predict what would happen if there was a major change in the prevalence of cannabis use.”

“All that can be said with any confidence is that if the prevalence of cannabis use increased to the levels of cigarette smoking and alcohol use, its public-health impact would increase,” it stated.

But it added that even under the worst-case scenario “it is unlikely that the public-health effect of cannabis use would approach those of alcohol or tobacco use.” It added that it was not likely marijuana would approach levels of tobacco or cocaine use, “since heavy use of a stimulant fits more easily into the rhythms of daily life in [developed] societies.”


Debating the Consequences

Proponents of legalizing marijuana argue that ending its prohibition will benefit society by removing the cost of law enforcement devoted to preventing its use.

Fox said legalization is moving marijuana out of the black market into “regulated, tax-paying businesses that have incentives to check for IDs and quality-control testing for their products with appropriate labeling and packaging.”

“When it comes down to it, people want to follow the law, and they enjoy the ease, reliability, quality control and the reality of wanting to purchase it in stores,” he said.

Fox argued that the goal should be to remove marijuana users from contact with criminals who have a financial incentive to introduce them to harder, more addictive drugs.

“No one tries to sell you heroin when you’re buying a bottle of wine,” he said.

Salmi, however, noted that Catholic Charities’ substance-abuse counselors look at marijuana as a gateway to more dangerous drugs, which leads to an increase of harder drug users in need of treatment.

“The first high someone gets from marijuana is very potent, and they spend a lot of time trying to re-create that, often with other dangerous chemical mixes or drugs,” he explained in an email.

Added Archbishop Schwietz, “We are fortunate that our legislature is working hard to put into place very strict regulations in an attempt to control some of the problems that will most likely arise. I pray for that regularly.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.