Colorado residents are bracing for Jan. 1, 2014, when the shelves of approved dispensaries will be stocked for the first time with recreational marijuana. Because of this change in our state’s laws, I have invited Professor Christian Brugger, a moral theologian from St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, to write about the ethical issues involved in the legalization of marijuana. It is important for us to understand the impact this decision will have on our youth and most especially what studies show concerning the long-term use of marijuana.
By E. Christian Brugger, Ph.D.
Prior to its legalization, morally conscientious people had at least one clear reason for opposing pot smoking: it’s against the law (a misdemeanor offense in most states for possessing small amounts).
Now that it’s legal, how should conscientious people assess the situation? This short article will only address a small number of questions associated with pot smoking, questions most relevant as the Jan. 1 deadline approaches. For purposes of space it will not address other questions, such as whether and under what circumstances it is legitimate to use marijuana for therapeutic purposes.
First we need clarity on the drug’s effects on users.
The intoxicating chemical in marijuana is called THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). It acts on the brain by stimulating the reward system in a way that causes a kind of euphoria (a “high”). The high results from a release of the chemical dopamine, as with other intoxicating drugs. Although relaxation may accompany the high, along with a modified perception of time and increased appetite, it may also cause feelings of anxiety, fear or panic. When the drug wears off, users often feel sleepy and depressed.
In addition, short-term memory is impaired, as is one’s ability to shift focus and make judgments. Coordination, balance and reaction time are also impaired making driving a dangerous business.
Persistent effects of continual use include long-term memory and learning impairment, addiction and respiratory problems similar to those associated with cigarette smoking.
Pot smoking also correlates to long-term anxiety and depression including in those who no longer smoke it, to the loss of motivation, and to an increased risk of psychosis, although the research on the relationship between marijuana use and mental illness have yet to demonstrate a causal effect.
Recreational users smoke marijuana in order to induce in themselves the euphoria mentioned above (i.e., to get “high”). They don’t smoke it to feel anxious or depressed, to lose motivation, impair their long-term memory, or contract bronchitis. To the extent they believe that these repugnant effects may occur, they accept them as unwelcomed side-effects.
This high entails an alteration of their perceptions and faculties of cognition. Since human cognition is a precondition for making any choices, good or bad, to impair our cognition means impairing our ability to make choices.
Morally conscientious people know that consistently acting well, even when we’re cognitively at the top of our games, is difficult. We face temptations from within in the form of unruly emotions and outside in the form of alluring self-destructive alternatives and the inducements of unscrupulous people.
When we’re high, it’s even more difficult to make good choices, for example, to act modestly, to treat members of the opposite sex with dignity and respect, to speak with due moderation, to maintain the reputations of others, not to eat or drink to excess, to be faithful to daily prayer, to keep faith in the face of difficult circumstances, etc.
Sacred Scripture has little to say about getting high, but it has a lot to say about drunkenness. St. Paul teaches that drunkenness is wrong because it prevents us from making wise choices and discerning God’s will (Eph 5:18); drunkenness is the behavior of those who walk in darkness (Rom 13:13). Jesus condemns drunkenness because it weighs down the heart and makes us inattentive to the coming of the Lord (Luke 21:31).
We can level these same charges against getting high. The intoxication that marijuana induces impairs our consciousness, makes us less receptive to carrying out God’s plan for our lives and lends to conduct unbecoming of a Christian.
Therefore, if we smoke pot with the intention of getting high, we do wrong. It follows that to the extent that the Colorado law aims at sanctioning pot smoking in order to get high, it’s a harmful and unjust law.
The injustice falls most heavily upon the young who are most likely to be influenced by the bad public example of pot smokers. Moral psychology indisputably shows that desire arises from the senses: from seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and feeling. Children, especially adolescents, who see their peers, their neighbors, or worse, their parents smoking pot, who smell the distinctly sweet odor, who hear about the “merits of getting high,” are much more likely to desire it, try it and become users. They will invariably—as is characteristic of the young—focus on the short-term “benefits” to the exclusion of the long-term risks of increased apathy, anxiety and depression.
Injustice is also done to parents who will find it much harder to protect their children from the almost irresistible temptation to experiment with this once forbidden fruit.
My one piece of advice to parents is to talk to their children clearly and frequently about the new temptations. Don’t pretend in your discussions with your kids that pot offers them no benefits. If it offered no benefits, no one would desire to use it.
But the benefits come at a serious cost: physically, psychologically, morally and spiritually.
For those who would like to read more on the effects of using marijuana you may visit: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana-abuse.