Yesterday (4/20) marked a holiday of sorts for marijuana advocates and users. However, this marginally acknowledged day–or what it celebrates–does not look as if it will be disappearing from public discourse anytime soon. An October 2016 Gallup poll found that 60% of respondents supported legalizing recreational marijuana. As marijuana use moves inward from the fringes of societal view, the church must be ready with a biblical response. While such a response seems rather obvious, there are few resources available that provide a biblically faithful and well-informed answer.
Tom Breeden and Mark Ward’s newest book Can I Smoke Pot? provides such a resource to the church. It is a biblically faithful and careful response to the issue of marijuana use, both medicinally and recreationally. It is not an exhaustive book, but it provides clear biblical direction and sharpens our discernment on this important issue.
Breeden and Ward address the issue in four chapters: 1) Marijuana and Creation, 2) Marijuana and Government, 3) Marijuana and Medicine, and 4) Marijuana and Alcohol.
Marijuana and Creation
Breeden and Ward affirm the goodness of God’s creation. Its goodness is not destroyed by the fall. While creation is now marked by futility and corruption, the scope of God’s plan of redemption is as wide as the scope of the fall. What does this mean for marijuana? If creation is good, then created things are good. Marijuana is good! The authors state, “Everything God made is good for its intended purpose(s).” However, they qualify this point, “There is a major difference between saying there must be good purposes for marijuana and saying that all purposes of marijuana must be good.” I thought the authors point here would have been strengthen by considering the practical value of hemp, a member of the same plant species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.). The authors save the discussion of medical purposes of marijuana for a later chapter (see below).
Marijuana and Government
God has given us civil government as a part of his creation (Rom 13:1-7). Christians are called to submit to government, even imperfect and flawed authorities. The limits set by our government on marijuana are not to be casually dismissed, but humbly submitted to as an act of submission to God.
In the United States, the issue of marijuana use is becoming increasingly more complicated as some state laws differ from the federal law concerning marijuana usage. Many states now permit the use of recreational marijuana to anyone over the age of 21 years old. However, many states do not permit it and the federal government still considers possession and use of marijuana a criminal act.
Marijuana and Medicine
Breeden and Ward focus on whether medical marijuana is permissible. The Bible speaks positively of God using ordinary means such as like medicine (even alcohol and oils) to accomplish his divine purposes such as healing (Prov 31:6; Isa 38:21; Luke 10:38; 1 Tim 5:23). Could pot (or any of its compounds) count as a medicine?
The authors do not exert themselves as medical experts or attempt to validate the supposed medicinal benefits of medical marijuana. Rather, they provide biblical parameters to the medical-scientific question. The difficulty of this question is that medical marijuana is often seen as paving the way for recreational marijuana. With this difficulty in mind, the authors provide a very qualified answer to whether medical marijuana is permissible: “If marijuana can have medicinal properties, or can be used to create medicines, the side effects of which fall into the normal range accepted among other drugs, then the fact that it’s commonly used to get high doesn’t in itself justify keeping it from [being used for medicinal purposes].”
The authors provide some helpful questions to further consider when evaluating the value of medicinal marijuana:
- What are the overall risks of medicinal marijuana usage?
- Is it a gateway or slipper-slope drug?
- Are there particular side-effects that may apply to the use of marijuana or its derivatives by young children?
- If medical marijuana use is permitted, will improper recreational use increase?
- Is marijuana the most effective treatment or palliation for a particular disease, condition, or patient, or are other more effective ones available?
- How would medicinal marijuana be administered to particular patients facing particular circumstances?
- How should it be controlled?
There are likely good arguments against certain proposals for the medicinal use of marijuana. And there are certainly possible dangers that may come as medical marijuana is legalized. We must avoid naively succumbing to any particular agenda, but we must also avoid removing ourselves from the conversation. While there are surely other questions to be asked, these provide a good starting point and demonstrate the need for careful thinking and discernment.
Marijuana and Alcohol
Breeden and Ward look to the Bible’s teaching on alcohol as the biblical basis for whether recreational marijuana usage is permissible. Most people who justify their use of marijuana will likely do so on the basis of the Bible’s teaching regarding alcohol. Drawing from both the Old and New Testament, the authors show that alcohol is a good thing that is dangerously subject to abuse. If used in moderation, it can be a gift (Ex 29:38-46; Deut 14:22-29; Luke 22:14-23; John 2:9-10). However, its abuse—drunkenness—is consistently prohibited by the Bible (Genesis 9:20-21; 19:30-38; Prov 23:20-21, 30-33; Rom 13:13; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:17-18; 1 Pet 4:3-5; 1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7).
While the parallel between alcohol and marijuana is not exact, the intended effect of recreational marijuana is closest to the effect of drunkenness. Underneath both alcohol abuse and marijuana use is the lack of self-control and sober-mindedness.
- Ephesians 5:17-18 – “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but filled with the Spirit”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 – “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
- 1 Peter 4:7 – “The end of all things is at hand: therefore, be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”
The thing we are forbidden by Scripture to do with alcohol appears to be just about the only thing we can possibly do with marijuana recreationally.
For a little more colorful explanation, the authors quote Doug Wilson’s conclusion:
The one thing pot does for you—get you buzzed—is the one use prohibited concerning alcohol. When Paul tells us not to be drunk with wine, he did not mean that getting drunk with beer or scotch was acceptable. The problem is not the wine, but rather the loss of self-control. And because such mental impairment is the whole point of smoking pot, recreational marijuana is a serious sin, from the very first toke on down. No one smokes pot because it pairs nicely with the fish.
Getting to the Heart of Recreational Marijuana Use
Breeden and Ward offer a closing word that addresses this topic in a more personal manner: either to the person who wants to use marijuana with a clear conscious or who want to be prepared for conversations with people who do.
Those who want to use marijuana with a clear conscience will likely be disappointed by this book’s conclusion. So, what do you say to the person who still just wants to get high? As a student minister, this gets to the heart issue of many teenagers and young adults—even older adults—who are justifying their use of marijuana.
The story goes…
I just want to relax and decompress. I’m just unplugging and trying to unwind. What’s so wrong with that? It’s not as bad as getting wasted on the weekends or going clubbing. When I get high, I don’t get angry or harm anyone. In fact, I’m usually at home. Besides, there are a lot of people who use marijuana and are good people.
The authors ask, “Where does this drive to justify getting high come from? What are you really craving, why are you pursuing it so hard?”
While a biblically informed response to this issue is necessary, it will not likely convince everyone they should not use or stop using recreational marijuana. The real issue rests on the heart level. People abuse alcohol and use marijuana because they are seeking to fill some void, cover some need, or satisfy some desire. Ed Welch puts it this way: “The use of mind-altering drugs and alcohol always raises the question: What is so wrong with everyday life? But the answer to that question is obvious—there is so much that is hard in everyday life, so many anxieties in daily life. We can understand why many people would seek a moment of chemically-induced peace.” For many who try marijuana, they find something that satisfies these desires at least for the moment. And for many, it often doesn’t have the same side effects or consequences as alcohol. Welch concludes, “In response, the Christian church hopes that we can offer someone better, who reveals to us a larger reality and the possibilities of true peace and joy.”
So, what are those reasons or desires that lead people to justify their use of recreational marijuana and what answer can the church offer in return:
Experience: Marijuana offers an experience that lifts us out of the ordinary and dull rhythms of our life, but God calls us to delight in the ordinary life he gives us and find joy in the mundane by fixing our eyes on him.
Escape: Marijuana promises an escape from the pressures and pains of life, but God calls us to find our refuge in him.
Acceptance: Marijuana offers acceptance from others and even a community in which we can belong, but God accepts us in Christ and frees us up to love others without fearing them or striving for their approval. And when he accepts us in Christ, we find our identity not in a common substance but in our common Savior.
Freedom: Marijuana presents itself as a symbol of our freedom and form of self-expression, but God calls rebellion because we do it spite of his call to find freedom in his commands and to lay down our freedom for the good of others and the glory of God.
God is better than drunkenness. He is better than getting high. And he is opposed to both things because they are false and harmful escapes—pitiful, idolatrous substitutes for the experience of his presence and favor. If you are a Christian, the experience of God’s unending love and mercy can be richly and abundantly yours if your reach out to him. – Ward and Breeden
And if you are not a Christian, Jesus offers this same love and mercy to you if you will turn from your sin and come to him. He offers a peace that surpasses understanding, a comfort when you are hurting, a refuge from the chaos surrounding you, a hope from the despair creeping in on you, and a delight that is truer and longer lasting than any high.
Other Helpful Resources:
- Is Recreational Marijuana Use a Sin? – Joe Carter
- Five Questions to Ask Before You Consume Cannabis – Trent Hunter
- Don’t Let Your Mind Go to Pot – John Piper
- The Church Must Respond to Marijuana’s Destructive March – ERLC