As California this year becomes the eighth state to legalize “recreational” marijuana (as opposed to “medical” uses), what do American religious groups have to say about this cultural lurch?
Not much, says an accurate complaint in The Christian Century’s Jan. 3 cover story “Talking About Marijuana -- in Church.” Author Adam Hearlson laments that churches are hesitant to openly discuss such a pertinent issue, and implies they should consider support for liberalization.
It's past time for the news media to consult religious thinkers about this.
Church wariness is reflected in the fact that the “mainline” Protestant magazine itself identified Hearlson only vaguely as “a minister, writer, scholar.” In fact he teaches preaching and worship and directs the chapel at the nation’s oldest seminary, Andover Newton (which after years of decline is about to shut down and be absorbed by Yale Divinity School).
One obvious story peg is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has overturned Obama Administration policy, giving federal prosecutors discretion to enforce anti-pot laws, even in states where it’s legal. Both parties in the U.S. Congress have kept such laws on the books, and Department of Justice concern did not originate with the Trump Administration (.pdf document here).
Leaving aside libertarians who insist government should simply leave us alone, proponents offer three key arguments for an open “recreational” market:
(1) Polls show public support.
(2) Taxes on sales provide big government revenues.
(3) Restriction is racially discriminatory.
On point 1, a slim majority of Republicans now join Democrats and Independents in support, and Hearlson notes Gallup polling found even 9 percent of churchgoers said they’d been high the previous week (so 91 percent were abstaining).
Regarding point 2, with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy pushing for “recreational” legalization during his first 100 days in office, Democrats who control the legislature say the state could gain $1 billion a year in taxes.
With point No. 3, author Emily Dufton (“Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America”) says the social-justice argument has proven very effective in promoting change.
Hearlson reports African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, and calls strict laws “an integral part of racist narratives.” He notes that authorities have long employed the Spanish term “marijuana,” rather than the botanically correct “cannabis.” (Writers can also choose among colorful synonyms like 4-20, airhead, Aunt Mary, bad seed, blaze, blow, boo, buds, dope, ganga, grass, hay, herb, joint, Mary Jane, reefer, roach, rope, skunk, stinkweed, weed and, of course, pot.)
Turning to the anti argument, conservative African-American columnist Jason Riley asks, “What about the disproportionate number of blacks” victimized by drug dealers, and the “law-abiding blacks who reside in poor neighborhoods where drug gangs have taken over”?
Interviewers should pursue moral qualms about drug use that Hearlson downplays, and practical problems that the cultural Left pooh-poohs. The Religion Guy’s local newspaper in New Jersey asks Governor Murphy to back off, contending legalization is unlikely to end illegal underground sales because buyers and sellers will still want to escape heavy taxes.
Marijuana is also a life-and-death issue, and this newspaper cites “great concern” about highway risks when police have no test for marijuana intoxication, unlike with alcohol. Though data are inexact, a 2014 Columbia University study said marijuana-related traffic fatalities have tripled nationwide, while Colorado reported highway deaths attributed to marijuana more than doubled after “recreational” use was allowed.
Then this: Journalism often ignores the scientific debate about the effects of marijuana that in turn raises ethical issues. There’s solid proof about those impaired drivers. Also, research reported by the National Institutes of Health shows 30 percent of smokers exhibit “some degree of marijuana use disorder,” with those under 18 facing enhanced troubles, and animal studies find “substantial evidence” of adverse brain changes, while “some research” suggests marijuana is, yes, a “gateway drug” that lures users into more dangerous narcotics.
There’s an overseas angle in Yemen, where qat leaves are chewed to induce similar mild euphoria. The Economist magazine on Jan. 6 reported that money diverted into this widespread “addiction” is “one of the biggest causes” of the famine and starvation now plaguing the population, but this “often goes unmentioned.”
Sooner or later, there will be religion-beat stories to cover linked to this topic.