Downgrading marijuana’s danger level: What Catholics should know

Marijuana Credit Pe3k via wwwshutterstockcom CNA 12 18 15 Credit: Pe3k/Shutterstock

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is moving toward reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug, according to recent reporting from the Associated Press. 

The proposal, if approved, would reclassify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) away from the top “Schedule I” — reserved for dangerous drugs with no accepted medical use and a high abuse potential — into the lower “Schedule III,” where it would join controlled substances such as ketamine and anabolic steriods. 

Schedule III drugs are subject to various rules that allow for some medical uses but still provide for federal criminal prosecution of anyone who traffics in the drugs without permission, the AP reported. 

Marijuana usage remains a controversial topic among many people of faith, including Catholics. Here’s what you need to know. 

What could change?

The purported classification change hasn’t yet happened, and marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, despite being legalized for recreational use in two dozen states and the District of Columbia over the past decade. Even more widespread has been the legalization of marijuana for medical use, with 38 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia today allowing the practice. 

According a May 1 analysis by congressional researchers, moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III, without other legal changes, “would not bring the state-legal medical or recreational marijuana industry into compliance with federal controlled substances law.” 

Specifically, the researchers say, medical marijuana would need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and would be subject to federal legal requirements that differ from existing state regulatory requirements for medical marijuana. 

In addition, the manufacture, distribution, and possession of recreational marijuana “would remain illegal under federal law and potentially subject to federal prosecution regardless of their status under state law,” even if marijuana were moved to Schedule III.

One potentially positive aspect of the reclassification, scientists have suggested, is an enhanced potential for research into the effects of marijuana on human beings. Schedule III drugs, because of their classification, are potentially easier to study than Schedule I drugs.

Credit: Mr. Green/Shutterstock
Credit: Mr. Green/Shutterstock

The reclassification would “open up the door for us to be able to conduct research with human subjects with cannabis,” said Susan Ferguson, director of University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute in Seattle, in comments to the AP. 

Dr. Jared Staudt, a Catholic theologian who serves as director of content for Exodus 90, told CNA this week that more research on the effects of cannabis is indeed needed, which he called a “positive” side of the prospective reclassification. But he cautioned against a further normalization of cannabis in U.S. society. 

“The downside comes from further normalizing cannabis as the country downplays its harmful effects, especially for those with developing brains,” Staudt noted.

A Catholic moral perspective

While the Catholic Church does not teach that the use of marijuana specifically is inherently sinful, paragraph 2291 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear about the use of drugs in general, describing as a “grave offense” their use apart from strictly therapeutic reasons. It also states in paragraph 2211 that the political community has a duty to protect the security and health of families, especially with respect to drugs.

Pope Francis, for his part, has spoken out against even the partial legalization of so-called “soft drugs,” stating in 2014 that “the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs.”

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E. Christian Brugger, a Catholic moral theologian living in Virginia, told CNA in late 2022 that smoking marijuana with the intention of getting high means putting your use of reason at risk. Human reason is necessary to commune with God and avoid sin, he said. 

“Like intentional drunkenness, getting high is the intentional altering of one’s consciousness. And when a person without necessity, and merely for the sake of pleasure, makes themself less able to use their reason … they do something that’s contrary to virtue,” Brugger said. 

In the numerous U.S. states where marijuana legalization has been considered or has passed, Catholic bishops have urged voters to reject marijuana legalization, citing the physical and spiritual harms of drug use.

Notably, in November 2023 Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver released a pastoral letter on the Church’s teaching on recreational drugs, with a particular focus on marijuana. (Colorado and its capital, Denver, have long been the epicenter of marijuana culture in the United States, the state having legalized its recreational use in 2012, one of the first states to do so.)

Laying out “foundation reasons” for the Church’s teaching that the use of drugs is immoral, Aquila in his letter first proposed that because the human person is of eternal value, it is wrong to use any substance that is harmful to human life. 

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila says Mass for the transitional deacon ordination in 2020. Credit: Archdiocese of Denver; photography: A&D Creative LLC
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila says Mass for the transitional deacon ordination in 2020. Credit: Archdiocese of Denver; photography: A&D Creative LLC

“[D]rugs diminish our self-possession by harming the very faculties that make us human: Drugs inhibit our use of reason, weaken our will’s orientation toward the good, and train our emotions to expect quick relief from artificial pleasure,” he continued.

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“These effects severely limit our ability to freely give ourselves to another — whether it be temporarily, as in the case of occasional drug use, or regularly, as in the case of drug addiction.”

On the contrary, “rather than reaching for chemicals when we are feeling weary and burdened, Jesus invites us to turn to him, who promises rest and abundance.”

Continuing, Aquila said Christians are called to “fully embrace Christ’s invitation to leave behind unhealthy attachments and coping mechanisms, like drugs … honoring God with our bodies.”

Addressing a possible objection, Aquila noted later in the letter that temperate use of alcohol is not the same as using drugs such as marijuana. Scripture, while describing alcohol as a gift from God, nevertheless strongly condemns drunkenness, he wrote.

Is marijuana dangerous?

Setting aside the purported medicinal or social benefits of marijuana, ample scientific evidence exists on the physical risks of using it, especially for the developing brains of young people. Reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have found that marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception, meaning it can impair performance in school or at work and make it dangerous to drive. 

Marijuana also affects brain systems that are still maturing through young adulthood, NIDA says, so regular use by teens may have negative and long-lasting effects on their cognitive development. 

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

Marijuana use is also associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorders, nicotine dependence, marijuana use disorder, and other drug use disorders, NIDA found. Research has also shown that pregnant women who use marijuana have a 2.3 times greater risk of stillbirth.

The societal effects of legal marijuana are also not to be ignored. Colorado, which was one of the first states to legalize recreational weed in 2012, has seen demonstrably higher rates of teen marijuana usage, traffic accidents, homelessness, and drug-related violence since legalization. 

Brugger commented that the fact that marijuana is physically harmful certainly makes it “something to avoid, unless there’s a good reason.”

Debate over decriminalization and legalization

Some activists support the legalization of marijuana as part of a program of criminal justice reform, arguing that the harsh penalties imposed for marijuana possession have disproportionately affected nonviolent offenders, especially those belonging to minority groups. 

Brugger, speaking to CNA in 2022, said there is “nothing suspect or inappropriate” about criticizing how people have been treated in the criminal justice system for marijuana offenses. 

That being said, “one can certainly criticize it without the need to destigmatize marijuana use entirely.” Catholics could advocate for lesser penalties for possession, he said, but making it entirely legal will likely lead to much greater widespread use. A “culture of sin that arises from inebriation is almost certain to increase following legalization,” Brugger said. 

Brugger also urged Catholics to be cautious, for the sake of those around them, about appearing to endorse marijuana use.

Legalization sends the message — especially for young people — that marijuana is safe and socially acceptable. Brugger said legalizing a “method of inebriation” that youth will take advantage of “can hardly lead to greater self-mastery and virtue.”

Legality is in some sense irrelevant to whether a thing is morally upright, Brugger said, and Catholics should be mindful of the example they are setting for others.

“We have an obligation to be a witness to the good and to Christ and to purity of heart and virtuous actions,” Brugger noted, adding that even if someone doubts the other arguments, the danger of scandal is something every Catholic should bear in mind.

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