To Puff or Not to Puff

NEWS ANALYSIS: Catholic experts weigh in on the morality of legalized marijuana.

(photo: Wikipedia)

DENVER — Lighting up pot has its moral pitfalls.

The dawning of legalized marijuana across the states in recent years has prompted Church experts to try to clear the haze about the much-debated drug.

Since last November’s elections, Colorado and Washington passed unprecedented laws making legal recreational use of marijuana, and lawmakers and state boards are formulating ways to shift it from a black market to a regulated and taxed commercial enterprise. Medical use alone has passed in 18 states from Alaska and Arizona to Delaware and Vermont.

These laws contradict federal law, but states are not obligated to enforce federal regulations on personal consumption. In addition, President Barack Obama has stated that prosecution of marijuana users in the two states will be a low priority for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Often, those with a moral conscience rejected pot use because it’s against the law.

In the wake of pot’s decriminalization and growing acceptance, some may wonder, “Now that pot’s legal, is it also moral?”

In November, Washington voters passed Initiative 502 with a 56% margin to make legal small amounts of marijuana-related products for adults. Similarly, Colorado passed Amendment 64 by 55% to allow the use, cultivation, manufacture and sale of small amounts.

Yet federal law hasn’t changed.

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug by the Controlled Substances Act, meaning its possession, use, purchase and sale is illegal because of its high potential for abuse.


Observing the Law

Even when laws are in conflict, Catholics are morally obligated to observe them. St. Thomas Aquinas said being a good citizen means recognizing the government’s authority and following just laws.

Beyond the law, the psychological and physical effects of pot must be considered.

The Church explicitly warns of its dangers and the moral obligation for the faithful to care for their bodies, which are tabernacles of Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.”

Washington state-based moral theologian Pia de Solenni said the dignity of the person is foundational to its teaching on drugs.

“What guides the Catholic principle is being made in the image and likeness of God and this idea of being a gift of self for others,” she said. “If it’s limiting how you’re called to live out your life, be in relation with other people and be a gift to other people, then I think there’s a moral problem with it.”

In 2001, the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care reported in its handbook “Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction” that consumption of the various forms of the cannabis plant cause euphoria, confusion, desire to laugh and drowsiness. Strong doses cause lethargy and upset in the perception of time, visual precision and loss of short-term memory. With high and repeated use, pot can cause palpitation, swelling of blood vessels, bronchial illnesses and psychic dependency.

“Considering all the facts, it is irresponsible to consider cannabis in a trivial way and to think of it as being ‘a soft drug,’ that is, one without remarkable effects on the organism,” the council stated.

Studies rejecting the myth of benign marijuana abound. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found smokers who heavily used pot in their teens through adulthood showed a significant drop in IQ level — by eight points — from average intelligence to the lowest third of the intelligence range.


Motivation Matters

After considering the effects of marijuana use, moral theologians said a user’s intention is crucial to determining its morality. Cannabis is not intrinsically evil, so an analysis of the morality of smoking pot is found by determining the object of the act of smoking, said Christian Brugger, a moral theologian and seminary professor in Colorado.

Recreational pot smokers use marijuana to induce themselves into a state of euphoria. So the object is to get “high” and to alter their consciousness.

Yet consciousness is needed to make choices, and to impair the human mind is to impair the ability to make choices, he said. Therefore, if a person is high, it’s more difficult for them to make good choices.

Sacred Scripture doesn’t address getting high, but it is filled with warnings about drunkenness.

“Scriptures are pretty harsh about it,” Brugger said.

Ephesians 5:18 and Romans 13:13 advise against carousing and drunkenness because it is a behavior of those who walk in darkness, and it damages the ability to make wise choices. Luke 21 says to avoid indulgence and worldly cares to be ready for Christ’s second coming.

“In all of these cases, what’s being gotten at is drunkenness puts you in a state of mind that diminishes your ability to act reasonably, or according to Christian reason,” Brugger said.

The same moral assessment on drunkenness can be applied to getting high.

Temperance is key, de Solenni said.

“Temperance is about how to be fully human. We use temperance to determine and to evaluate all our actions,” she said.


Is Moderate Use Acceptable?

Pot advocates may argue their intention is to relax at home after work, not to get high. If pot is akin to alcohol and can be used temperately, is it morally acceptable?

De Solenni said, no, it cannot be used moderately.

“Once you’ve gone beyond the buzz, you actually lose control over your rational functions — it’s wrong. It goes against our nature and who we’re supposed to be.”

Brugger said it may be.

“I think, ordinarily, if it’s not a near occasion of sin for you, if you’re not inclined to alcoholism, having a beer when you come home from work is not a bad thing. It can be good thing,” he said. “(Likewise), if one kept pot in strict moderation, it seems to me, it need not always be immoral. But there are other things bearing upon the question.”

Christian witness is also a crucial consideration.

Because marijuana has been associated with a culture of lawlessness and rebellion, it could be a near occasion of sin to those who witness others smoking it, Brugger said.

And even if used in moderation, Catholics have good reason to avoid pot when alternatives like a glass of wine are available.

“I think the cultural factor and witness factor is one in which I would argue that Catholics ought to avoid its use,” he said.


Health and Vulnerability Concerns

The vulnerability of those engaged in drug use and pot’s health risks are reason enough to avoid it, said professor Hille Haker of Loyola University Chicago, a Christian ethicist.

Pot smoking and being an agent of its purchase or sale is not something she wants for herself, her children or others.

“If I don’t want my kids to become drug dealers, then I have good intuition that I don’t want anybody to become a drug dealer,” she said.

However, an ethical assessment requires one to transcend intuition, and the respect for the freedom of others becomes a consideration.

Legal or not, pot’s proportionality to other legal drugs with respect to its similar health risks is an aspect in deciding its right or wrong use, she said. If alcohol is legal and can be consumed ethically, then pot with similar health risks should be treated equally under the law and considered ethically acceptable, she proposed.

Also, a person’s decision to smoke pot may be implicated morally if there is not a set of regulations that would control the distribution and contents of the drug. Buying pot on the streets, a potentially dangerous activity that supports illegal drug dealing, may not be an ethical decision for a pot smoker if there is an option to buy it in a controlled and regulated setting, like a state-approved pot shop.

“My ultimate interest is to serve the well-being of others in my ethical assessment, but also not to infringe on their personal responsibility and personal freedom,” Haker said.


‘Just Stop and Think’

De Solenni said that, while it is becoming more prevalent, she encourages people to consider the implications of pot smoking.

“People just need to sit down and use their brains,” she said. “Just stop and think. You don’t need the Church to tell you not to use a substance that substantially impairs your ability to think and function as a rational human being.”

Nissa LaPoint writes from Denver.