In 1998, shortly before I moved to Colorado, Initiative 40 was passed into law. Initiative 40 provided for the legal use of marijuana as a medical treatment for people with “debilitating medical conditions.” So the nearly four years I have lived here in Colorado has been the age of “medical marijuana.” This decision has brought a lot of changes to my city and to our state. Those of us who live here know that the “medical” veneer of marijuana is thin (it’s amazing how many 20-somethings there are here suffering from chronic back pain). With laughingly little regulation over dispensaries or the process for obtaining a card to purchase medical marijuana, we have stood for four years on the precipice considering the implications of making marijuana legal for recreational use. This week we stepped off the cliff. Proposition 64, which proposed a constitutional amendment to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol in the state of Colorado, passed into law with 55% of the vote. An inevitable fight between state and local government certainly lies ahead. As Governor Hickenlooper said in a statement last night, “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.”
As a pastor, many people have asked me my opinion about marijuana use during my time in Denver. Up until now, it’s been easy. If you have a legitimate medical condition, and your physician recommends medical marijuana, no problem. If you want to use marijuana recreationally, it’s illegal. As Christians, Romans 13 makes it pretty clear that we’re to obey the law. End of discussion…sometimes. But others would ask, “So what if it was legal?” As I’ve thought about that question the last four years, here are some conclusions I’ve come to.
The Bible doesn’t say anything specifically about marijuana or its use. However, the Bible does tell us that all plants were created by God and are good. This includes marijuana. So marijuana in and of itself is not inherently bad. Too often as Christians we are tempted to think in the good/bad, righteous/unrighteous binary. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong. But often life presents complexities that defy these simple categories.
The relevant question for us when it comes to marijuana is not whether it is good or bad, but how and why am I using it?
Is it wrong for someone who has a legitimate medical need (like my friend Kimberly who is in great pain and has developed allergies to all prescription pain meds) and would greatly benefit from using marijuana? I don’t think so. But when it comes to recreational use, I think we have to look deeper.
While the Bible doesn’t talk about recreational use of marijuana, it does talk about the use of another drug – alcohol. We can learn how to think biblically about marijuana by looking at how the bible thinks about alcohol. Throughout the bible, it is made clear that alcohol is not in and of itself bad. But the bible cautions how we use alcohol. (To read more see this sampling of verses on alcohol) It warns us about the dangers of drinking to excess and becoming drunk (here’s a sampling of verses).
Paul in particular wrote from this perspective that we should move beyond simple right/wrong thinking and ask, is it beneficial? (1 Cor 6:12) When it comes to our actions, sometimes the right question is not whether something is right or wrong necessarily, but it is whether it is wise and beneficial or not. (Great article on the value of healthy practices) When it came to alcohol, Paul was clear – the practice of drunkenness did not lead to the abundant life as part of God’s kingdom:
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. (Ephesians 5:15-18)
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh…19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:13, 19-21)
So for Paul the issue with alcohol is not whether it’s good or bad but how it’s used. He makes it clear that getting drunk is not a practice that leads us in the right direction, toward inheriting the goodness of God’s kingdom. Which brings us back to marijuana. The primary difference I see between social/recreational use of alcohol and marijuana is that it is not possible to use marijuana in moderation. Some have taken issue with me on this, but I just don’t believe it’s possible to socially use marijuana. You can have a beer or glass of wine and not alter your mental faculties whatsoever. But with the potency of marijuana today through hybridization, this simply isn’t possible. If Paul were alive today, I think he’d add “getting high” to his list of obvious acts of the flesh.
I voted against proposition 64, primarily due to the frightening research about how marijuana affects children (see the terrifying reality my friend Dr. Chris Thurstone is uncovering in his research at Denver Health). I am still hopeful that the truth of the medical research will sway the federal government to act in protection of our kids and keep marijuana a restricted substance. If not, it will be a cultural practice that will be legal to adults in Colorado, and a personal decision for each person to make regarding their use of marijuana. For Christians, I think that choice is clear.