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The morality of marijuana

Religious leaders adapting legally, spiritually to growing interest in pot products

European girl praying with folded hands at the breast. (Istockphoto)
European girl praying with folded hands at the breast. (Istockphoto)
A few years ago, a student asked Shelley Bryan Wee, Lutheran Campus pastor at Eastern Washington University, if it was OK, as a Christian, to bring pot to a friend in a state where it was illegal. This conversation likely wouldn’t have happened before Washington legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, but as its use becomes more prevalent, questions from the faithful about the appropriate boundaries around bud are inevitable. According to historical records, cannabis actually has had a fairly consistent presence for almost 5,000 years, appearing in many countries and cultures for medicinal or ceremonial purposes. Some scholars have suggested that the anointing oil passed from God to Moses may have even been infused with cannabis. Before the U.S. Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially banned its use and sale domestically, the plant was present in tinctures and health remedies, with nary a question about ethics or morality. It was simply “medicine.” So it is only really in the last 75 years that cannabis has been the center of moral debates that create passionate responses from supporters and from opponents. A year ago, in a Senate hearing discussing whether or not the Department of Justice had adequately enforced its duties on marijuana, then Sen. Jeff Sessions, now Attorney General, said “…good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions’ words reflect and perhaps even perplex religious leaders in states where cannabis is legal, prompting the question: Can you be a good Christian/follower of other religions and also smoke marijuana? “Yes. Absolutely,” said Lena Davidson, a Seattle resident with five years of experience in the medical and legal cannabis industries. “Cannabis is an interior experience; a reflective and delicate one when consumed responsibly. Anything that brings us into a more intimate connection with ourselves serves the spiritual life, Christian or otherwise.” Rabbi Dr. Elizabeth W. Goldstein, assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, said that in Judaism the answer comes down to: “Are you in violation of a law or are you not?” When something is legal at the state level but illegal federally, Jewish legal scholars must ask themselves which law has more sway. “I personally have not researched the answer, but I think if the state says it’s OK, then it’s probably OK,” Goldstein stated. “If states have the right to make their own laws, then most moderate rabbis would say if you aren’t breaking the law of the land, and in moderation, it would be acceptable.” But when you’re talking about something as personal as spirituality, there’s no shortage of opinions. For instance, while many churches minister to the downtrodden, most also don’t want to condone practices that can be seen as spiritually unhealthy, such as substance use. Some objections to marijuana among Spokane-area faithful are actually less about theoretical spiritual pros and cons of morality, and more about specific concerns such as zoning laws that govern the distances between marijuana retailers and churches. Beth Jarrett, a Lutheran pastor who speaks with young people about marijuana and the stigmas surrounding its use, believes moderation is key. “To my knowledge, there is nothing scripturally in the Bible that states cannabis is forbidden. There are, of course, many passages that express moderation in consumption of things like wine and food,” Jarrett stated. It’s similar to the outlook of Wee at EWU. “Marijuana is legal in Washington. Therefore, I think it is lawful to use it. I think people can use and misuse marijuana the same as they can use and misuse alcohol or any other drug. Lawfully and ethically it’s OK as long as it is in moderation and doesn’t negatively affect their life or others.” Law and ethics aside, what does this mean for the morality of faithful users? On the one hand, alcohol is a legal drug that our culture has embraced. On the other hand, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is responsible for an estimated 88,000 deaths annually. Both Goldstein and Wee said students don’t talk much about cannabis use, but they do share their alcohol experiences. “I hear about how students are misusing alcohol,” Wee said. “If cannabis is used in a reasonable and prudent manner, I would put it in the same category as alcohol. There are some who should not be smoking pot because they have a tendency to over-use it, and there are some who should not be using alcohol because they have a tendency to over-use it.” Karen Petersen Finch, an associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, said students generally do not broach the subject of marijuana or alcohol unless she asks. “Interestingly, students will hide alcohol use from their professors and hide substance abuse, which suggests that students don’t know if it’s morally appropriate or not,” she said. Finch has greater concerns, however, about the stewardship of the students’ minds, especially young people just learning to be independent. “It’s the balance of freedom of conscience and the stewardship of life. It’s a balance that adults have to face, and I’m also concerned about that balance young people are making when their brains are not fully developed,” Finch said. In her way of thinking, everyone is given one brain, by God. Therefore, she questions cannabis as an appropriate substance. “Is it good stewardship of a young mind if it is hard on brain development?” Finch asked. “For religious people, yes, life can really suck. We all need practice in turning toward God when life sucks rather than trying to make things softer around the edges by using other substances.” And for the student who asked Wee if she could bring pot to her friend in another state? “Ethically, I told her no,” Wee said. “There are many red flags. You could put yourself in jeopardy, you could put yourself in a moral dilemma with the church, you would be breaking the law.” “So while it’s legal in Washington, but not other states, you have to look at it in a broader perspective, the bigger ethical picture.” That bigger ethical picture seems to be to obey the law, and if you choose to use marijuana, do so in moderation.
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