By Christopher Stefanick
Forgive the title. I couldn’t resist. I do respect Pat Robertson for the good things he’s done, but as a lifelong youth minister, I don’t think his support of the movement to legalize recreational pot use is one of them. I fear doing so would make pot use even more commonplace among teens.
In a controversial interview published in the March 7 New York Times, Pat called for an end to the war on drugs because it’s expensive, it’s failing and it’s turning users who are imprisoned for possession into hardened criminals. He argues, as many cannabis crusaders do, that marijuana should be treated as we treat alcohol.
Pat does bring up some excellent points. I would agree with him that it’s “completely out of control” that a single joint can land a young person in prison for 10 years. What he seems to overlook, however, is that there’s a lot of middle ground between that extreme and making the stuff commonplace at every high school party because it’s available at your local Wal-greens.
And as much as people try to liken pot to alcohol, they really are apples and oranges in many respects. While alcohol can be used to produce a drunken stupor, pot can’t be used to enhance a good steak in quite the same way as a glass of wine.
Alcohol can lubricate a conversation and open one’s taste buds. Pot, a far more powerful drug, tends to disconnect you from the reality of both the conversation and the steak. Sure, when you’re high it might taste like the best thing that ever exited an oven, even though it’s really just an Arby’s sandwich. And you might think you’re with your best friend in the whole world, even though you really have nothing in common when you’re not stoned.
This kind of disconnect from reality might seem harmless, but it isn’t when it comes to the pot-smoker’s perception of his own life. Pot creates the delusion of a peace won through a life of hard-earned virtue, disciplined prayer, and openness to the freely given grace of God.
The euphoria it produces may be subtle (which makes it all the more insidious as a drug), but it is powerful, and it makes pot habitual for many users who replace the pursuit of peace that comes from a life well-lived with dependence on a weed.
All of this has led people to rightly dub the doobie “the gateway drug.” According to studies, people who smoke pot are 104 times more likely to try cocaine. While those who argue for legalization make the solid point that correlation isn’t the same as cause, anyone with common sense can tell you that vices come in steps. Go to any Narcotics Anonymous meeting and you’re bound to hear countless stories wherein pot was a significant step down the path that ended at rock bottom. If pot is okay in moderation, why not cocaine in moderation, just for a little “pick me up”?
But even if it doesn’t lead to other drugs, people who pretend that marijuana is harmless are simply choosing to ignore the facts. I often have question and answer boxes at retreats I give for teens so they can ask anonymous questions. One time a teen put in the wise-crack question, “What does it feel like when you get stoned?” The priest who was with me jumped in before I could answer. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I can tell you what it feels like to have your dad come home stoned every day, and it’s not fun.”
If you want to know the real cost of pot use just ask the families of those who smoke regularly. That disconnected dad may feel that he loves everyone, life is perfect, and he knows true peace, all of which might be the furthest thing from the truth, not that he’d notice.
Sure, some people need help managing their stress, but unlike prescribed anti-depressants that help you get your emotional footing just enough to work on bettering your life situation, or an anti-anxiety medication which is given under a psychiatrist’s care to give you just enough reprieve to return to dealing with your life, pot provides an exit from life, that, without a doctor’s oversight, can become a constant IV drip of escape.
In addition to this escapism, pot is simply not healthy in countless other ways. Even in small doses it wages a war on brain cells by impairing thinking and problem-solving skills and measurably decreasing short-term memory. It significantly increases the risk of a heart attack. It suppresses ovulation and lowers sperm count. It can also decrease motivation, and poses an increased risk for paranoia and schizophrenia.
Marijuana smoke contains five to seven times more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco, thus heightening risk of chronic cough and respiratory infections, and cancer. And according to recent studies it may significantly increase one’s risk of the most lethal of testicular cancers.
With all the problems it causes, it’s puzzling to me why it’s so en vogue to wage war on cigarettes and is increasingly unpopular to do so against pot. (Perhaps western society has agreed that the lung is more worthy of cancer-protection than the testicle?)
Of course one might argue that for those who abuse it, alcohol is every bit as damaging as pot use, and I’d agree! The law already deters people from abuse of alcohol whenever possible, as it should. But alcohol used in moderation as it is by most people is not only harmless, it’s arguably healthy. That’s a tough case to make for marijuana.
By no means do I want to paint the picture that I’m representing a definite Church teaching here. The Church is clear on the immorality of illegal drug use and intoxication to the point where one’s reason is impaired. The Church has not officially spoken about whether or not marijuana should be made legal, or if it would be morally licit, if legal, and taken in moderation. But for the sake of our youth, I’m hoping and praying it won’t become legal, and the Church won’t have to weigh through all this.
The law is a teacher, especially for the young. If something is legal and readily available, despite how much money is spent trying to encourage kids to “just say no” until they are of age, they’ll hear the message loud and clear that there’s nothing really wrong with it. While I agree that there are ways we need to radically change the way we wage our war on drugs, we shouldn’t raise the white flag. If we legalize it, we can expect to see as much underage toking as we currently do underage drinking. I can’t believe Mr. Robertson really wants to see that happen, but he’s foolish if he thinks it won’t.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.