by Bishop Thomas Tobin
The legal status of marijuana: approve for medical use, decriminalize or completely legalize? That’s the question being debated across the country right now, including here in Rhode Island.
Presently in Rhode Island the use of marijuana for medical purposes is permitted. A bill before the General Assembly would legalize the possession, use and sale of recreational marijuana for those 21 and older. Smoking marijuana in public would still be prohibited.
The issue is important; it has medical, economic, sociological, and moral consequences. And apparently it’s a very touchy subject for lawmakers too. According to a recent article in the Providence Journal, only 20 of the 113 lawmakers surveyed would even indicate their position on this “political hot potato.”
The Catholic Church has a position about the morality of recreational drug use, but before we look at that, let me mention a couple of preliminary points.
First, I should emphasize that my observations here are from a purely theoretical, objective viewpoint. Although I came of age in the moral wilderness of the 1960s, when just about everything was on the table, I’ve never smoked marijuana – or anything else for that matter. For me, “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a song about childhood, nothing more!
Second, a case can be made that the moderate use of marijuana by a responsible adult in a controlled setting is not always immoral. It’s very similar to the moderate use of alcohol some theologians will argue. Their approach is that the use of pot is not intrinsically evil; its morality is based on whether or not it’s abused, and whether or not it leads to other harmful consequences.
The nuances of moral theology aside, the teaching of the Church on the recreational use of drugs is pretty clear.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.” (#2291) Note, there is no exception for marijuana mentioned here.
Pope Francis has addressed the issue: “Let me state in the clearest terms possible. Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise. Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects. Here I would reaffirm what I have stated on other occasions: No to every type of drug use.”
Beyond the moral dimensions of the issue, there are a number of practical and societal concerns to be considered.
The first is the numbing effect that widespread marijuana use can have on a community. I recently had a conversation with a prominent businessman who just returned from Colorado where the use of marijuana is legal and widespread. He said that the local scene is disturbing. Some public places he visited were filled with zombie-like individuals, completely stoned. Adding to the problem is the fact that marijuana is available in a variety of seemingly benign forms: candy, cookies, brownies, and mints, for example. From his experience the legalization of marijuana has had noticeable destructive consequences, at least in one place.
With so many of our citizens, especially the younger ones, already immune to reality with their addiction to electronics – hoodies on, heads down, ear buds in, and attached to their virtual umbilical cords – do we want to provide another means of escape for our kids, transporting them even further into the land of oblivion?
We just had an incident in Providence that exemplifies the concern: an individual was found smoking pot . . . in the back of our Cathedral . . . during the 10:00 Mass. She was quickly removed and the local police called. Really, if I’m going to smell anything in our Cathedral I want it to be holy incense, not cannabis.
Sometime ago I was in a meeting with a leading law-enforcement official who described the increasing incidence of marijuana use among young adults, a problem his officers found especially in arrests for impaired and dangerous driving. Marijuana was becoming an equal concern to alcohol abuse he said, though both are far too common and of grave concern.
Additionally, the health problems related to marijuana have been extensively studied and publicized. They include damage to the brain, heart and lungs, an increase of testicular cancer in young males, concerns during pregnancy, and a variety of psychiatric disorders as well.
We’re all aware of and concerned about drug abuse in the local community, especially the tragedies resulting from the opioid epidemic. A report from a special Task Force documented the serious problems: “Addiction and overdose are claiming lives, destroying families, and undermining the quality of life across Rhode Island. In 2014, 239 people in our state lost their lives to overdose, more than the number of homicides, motor vehicle accidents, and suicides combined . . . In 2013 Rhode Island had the highest rate of illicit drug use in the nation.”
The shocking numbers illustrate the extent of the problem. So, the question is: Do we want to add another drug to this lethal landscape that results in death, destruction, and societal decay?
In light of all these concerns, I urge our state leaders to say no to the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island. In opening the door to drug use even a little bit, we have so much to lose and absolutely nothing to gain. And, frankly, with all the social dysfunction we’re already dealing with in the state, we don’t need any more problems.
The Rhode Island Catholic May 12, 2016
Thomas J. Tobin is an prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He serves as the eighth and current Bishop of Providence.