On January 1, 2020 a new era began in Illinois. My state, along with a growing number of others, legalized recreational marijuana. For years the legal prohibition against using pot short-circuited discussions about the wisdom of using pot. As a pastor, I could simply say Christians should honor the governing authorities (Romans 13) and not use an illegal substance. In Illinois at least, I won’t be able to say that anymore. Everyone in my congregation is now able to legally obtain marijuana.
In exploring this subject, I have done much reading. I have also met with physicians and counselors who specialize in drug treatment and had many conversations with regular users of the drug. What I uncovered has challenged longstanding assumptions I made about this plant. I was forced to confront some uncomfortable truths.
I found that the initial laws passed in our country to criminalize marijuana were, in part, motivated by racial animus. Even today, racial minorities are far more likely to be prosecuted for marijuana related crimes – even when considering usage rates. I also found that alcohol is a much greater contributor to some negative social outcomes like impaired driving and domestic violence than marijuana is. Learning truths like these has forced me to question my beliefs about this drug. I can no longer say what I would have said about pot. But as a pastor who loves his people, I want to say something of value to them as they wrestle with this issue in a new way.
While I didn’t go through DARE myself, I grew up in an era where marijuana was grouped together with other illegal substances and villainized. Various authorities said scary and sometimes inaccurate things about pot to discourage kids from smoking it. But most Americans have used marijuana at some point in their lives, and most have not experienced the disastrous effects that were advertised.
Today some Christians are rethinking their views about marijuana and even advocating for its use. Craig Gross, the cofounder of XXXChurch, a well-known ministry that seeks to lead people out of pornography, recently launched a website to sell marijuana to Christians. In addition to experiencing health benefits, Gross says he has “become a better dad, husband, lover, boss, business partner and overall human being because of (marijuana)” That’s quite the claim.
Recreational marijuana is now legal in my state, but for a Christian, legality shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. We are called to consider not only what is allowable but also what is beneficial (1 Cor 10:23). We need to think more deeply and pray for wisdom as we try to understand God’s will for us about this complicated issue. In that spirit, I offer some biblically informed diagnostic questions to help Christians process the use of marijuana.
Does using marijuana lead to a state like drunkenness?
This is probably the most discussed question facing Christians related to marijuana use. There are several passages in Scripture that condemn alcohol abuse and drunkenness (Gal 5:21). There are also other passages that call Christians to be “sober minded” (1 Pet 4:7). If drunkenness caused by alcohol is sinful, then pursuing a state like drunkenness through another substance would also be sinful. Before we can extrapolate however, we need to understand how the Bible considers drunkenness.
Scripture acknowledges that alcohol alters our mental and emotional state, and it often speaks of these effects in negative ways. In various passages alcohol is associated with confusion, laziness, and violence. But Scripture also describes a positive emotional effect of alcohol. Alcohol is said to “gladden the heart” (Ps. 104:15). When consumed in appropriate quantities, on appropriate occasions, by responsible individuals, alcohol can be used for healthy relaxation and enjoyment. Scripture does not view this altered emotional state negatively.
So where is the line between “gladdening the heart” and drunkenness? When we consider being drunk, we may think about someone who blacks out, staggers around, or vomits. People experiencing these symptoms because of alcohol would fall under the biblical definition of drunkenness. But God, I believe, would caution us long before we reach this extreme point of intoxication.
In Ephesians 5:18 the Apostle Paul challenges his readers to; “…not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (ESV) Here followers of Jesus are challenged to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit rather than be influenced by alcoholic “spirits”. Following the contrast offered in this verse, I would argue that we have had too much of any substance when it has dulled our sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When under the influence, we begin doing, saying, or thinking things that dishonor God – or people made in his image, we have consumed too much. When we begin gratifying the desires of the flesh rather than producing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:16-26), we have consumed too much. Applying this standard would certainly limit our consumption long before we vomit in the bushes.
So does consuming marijuana lead one in a state similar to being drunk from alcohol? It is difficult to generalize an answer to this question because they are different substances. Various strains of marijuana also have different effects. Some strains contain larger amounts of THC (The element which causes the high). People also respond differently to marijuana based on their unique body chemistry. It does seem possible for some people to consume marijuana in amounts that do not lead to a state of intoxication.
Is marijuana the best available remedy for my medical need?
Many extravagant claims are made today about the positive effects of marijuana for those who are sick. Marijuana is offered as a treatment for anxiety, cancer, autism, and a whole host of other illnesses. Many people claim to have found relief through the use of medical marijuana. Johnathan Merritt writes in the New York Times that marijuana gave him relief from “stabbing pain, panic attacks, (and) crippling depression” Because marijuana is still a prohibited substance in many places, good studies that prove medical benefits are not plentiful, but many people have apparently been helped by its use.
The use of substances for relief of medical conditions certainly has precedent in the Bible. Paul encourages Timothy to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (1 Tim 2:23 ESV), and the book of Proverbs encourages its readers to “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress” (Proverbs 31:6 ESV) In Scripture, the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes, including palliative care, is encouraged. It would seem that marijuana could also be appropriately used in medical treatment.
In the final months of his life, my father considered using medical marijuana to alleviate the pain resulting from his prostate cancer and subsequent treatment. When I talked with him about it, I didn’t discourage him from pursuing that option. I do believe there are legitimate medical uses for this plant. Effective medicines are gifts from God for use in our fallen world.
That said, I believe there is another question Christians should ask. Even if medical marijuana could alleviate some of our health concerns, is it the best available remedy? It is possible that other treatments may have the beneficial effects of pot without the mind-altering side effects. As a principle, it seems best to prefer medical treatments that leave more of our cognitive facilities intact.
It would also seem wise for us to try non-drug related ways of responding to health difficulties, such as exercise and diet, before turning to a substance such as marijuana. Asking; “Is marijuana the best available remedy for my medical need?”; can help us determine what our motivations are. It can show us if we are more interested in being high than we are in being well.
Will using marijuana limit my ability to fulfill important responsibilities?
Many marijuana users do not fit the pothead stereotype. Most people who smoke pot are not underemployed basement dwellers. Many users get good grades and have good jobs. Marijuana is undoubtedly used by people in every class and income level.
That said, marijuana is known to stifle motivation and ambition. Users have told me that if they smoke in the morning, they won’t get a lot done that day. Employers have also lamented to me how unproductive and undependable their pot-smoking employees are. This well-known demotivational effect seems to grow stronger the more frequently a person uses pot. And in some cases, this lack of motivation seems to imbed itself in the personality of users. This effect, labeled amotivational syndrome, has been observed in some long term users.
Why should Christians care about the demotivational effects of Marijuana? Work is a good gift from God. After creating the first man in Eden, God gave him the task of caring for the garden (Gen 2:15). The book of Proverbs frequently warns its readers about the dangers of laziness (13:4, 21:25, etc.) Poverty is said to result from the abuse of alcohol. Prov. 23:20-21 says; “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.” Misusing substances can limit our ability to obey God’s creation mandate – to wisely exercise dominion over the world he has made (Gen 1:28).
I know some people choose to stay in entry level jobs because they want to continue using marijuana and they want to avoid the drug testing that would accompany higher positions. This could certainly be a waste of God given potential. Though a drug may be legal to use in a particular location, employers could still choose to test and terminate those who use marijuana. Even legal use could endanger a person’s employment.
Christians should not use substances in a way diminishes their ability to provide for themselves and their families. We should avoid using substances that hinder us from accomplishing the work God has called us to do. If recreational marijuana leads us into a pattern of laziness, we shouldn’t be using it. If recreational marijuana hinders our ability to work effectively, we shouldn’t be using it.
Is using marijuana worth the possible health risks and side effects?
A physician I interviewed in preparation for this article noted how little we really know about the long-term effects of marijuana use on the human body. Today’s marijuana is also not your mom’s marijuana. Over the last few decades, selective breeding has produced increasingly potent strains of the plant. The federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance has also made it difficult to study the effects of this drug.
But even with our limited information, there does seem to be evidence of detrimental effects on some users. As noted earlier, users of marijuana may experience reduced drive and motivation. Pot can negatively impact personal productivity. Though the connection is disputed, marijuana use has been correlated with an increased risk of mental illness. There is also evidence that marijuana can have a negative impact on male fertility.
There is significant agreement that marijuana use can be detrimental to young people whose brains are still developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that; “Numerous published studies have shown the potential negative consequences of short- and long-term use of recreational marijuana in adolescents.” While for adults the safety of marijuana use is still being debated, for young people the verdict seems clear – stay away.
As Christians considering the use of marijuana, we should be aware of these and other potential negative effects. Our bodies are a gift from God, and we should treat them with care. The Apostle Paul reminds Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 that God himself resides within them. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” As stewards and not owners of our bodies, we should avoid harming them by abusing substances.
Even if some forms of marijuana are shown to be relatively safe when used in moderation, Christians should be cautious about consistent use. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the troubles that fall on those who “tarry long over wine”. Similar warnings could be made about recreational marijuana. We should also exercise additional restraint based on our individual personalities. If we have a tendency is toward addiction or dependency, it is a good idea to avoid using such a substance altogether.
How might my decision to use marijuana affect those around me?
While we may be inclined to think about this issue primarily from our own perspective, using substances also has communal implications. The New Testament teaches us that Christians should sometimes be willing to set aside their personal liberties out of love for their community (Rom 14).
Our choices influence those around us. Parents and mentors should therefore consider how their use of marijuana might influence the children they care for. We should also remember that there are many people around us who have previously used marijuana in unhealthy ways. Our use of marijuana could possibly influence them to return to those unhealthy patterns. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 14:21: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (ESV)
There are undoubtedly many Christians who will continue to have strong objections to marijuana use. While some followers of Jesus may be able to use marijuana responsibly, with a clear conscience, we should also consider how using marijuana could affect our relationships within the church. Marijuana use by younger Christians may put up walls between them and older believers, who could otherwise serve as helpful mentors to them. Our fear of disapproval should not control the way we live, but sometimes our love for others will cause us to give up freedoms that we would otherwise enjoy.
The more I studied, the more complex I found the information about marijuana to be. There is a lot we don’t know right now, and as time goes on more facts will undoubtedly come to light. My sense is that Christians would be wise to move slowly and use great caution here. I wouldn’t encourage my brothers and sisters to immediately visit the nearest dispensary, but I would encourage them to pray and process this issue with their spiritual community. We need to talk with each other about complex issues like this. I hope the questions I offer here will lead to better conversations about marijuana in the church.