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Recently Canada entered the brave new world of legal marijuana. It is now legal across Canada, along with a few American states, to purchase, possess, and consume cannabis for recreational use. What this new world requires is a practical, Proverbs-like theological wisdom and discernment. It’s a complex matter that isn’t served well by easy oversimplifications like coloring cannabis with starkly black-and-white moral categories or framing it around license. What, then, is a Christian’s relationship to legal weed?
The legal status of marijuana does not imply a holy permission. Gambling is legal, and so is pornography, along with a host of other things a Christian rightly avoids. While Christians honor the governments and laws of a given country, they don’t take those laws as the high-water mark of holy living or social righteousness. As citizens of God’s kingdom, Christians are called to another ethic.
This makes Christians alert for larger realities at play. It would be naive to ignore powers released in legalization, say, the economic forces behind the commercialization of cannabis or the market dynamics that seek to increase cannabis usage by current users and also increase the market of new users.
Therefore, Christians seek out various lines of sight into the matter of legal pot. For example, Christians care about matters of justice and might urge pardons for those with criminal records for previous marijuana possessions. Christians value science and take note when medical doctors and cannabis researchers urge a greater caution due to the significant physical and mental health risks, adverse effects associated with the use of cannabis, and evidentiary uncertainty. They also seek protection for the young and vulnerable and are troubled by data from other places of legalized marijuana where use among 12- to 17-year-olds has increased during legalization.
Of course this doesn’t mean Christians stand opposed to all things cannabis. For example, they are moved by compassion at the plight and needs of hurting people. Understanding that some individuals suffering from terminal illness or chronic disease may find relief with cannabis may lead them to favor regulated access to medicinal cannabis. Christians also affirm the goodness of all created things, including the marijuana plant. As stewards of creation we, therefore, remain open to researching and cultivating the benefits of cannabis. This remains a fraught matter of discernment because a created good can easily be distorted and misdirected in its use, as can happen, for instance, with alcohol.
Alcohol is often raised as an equivalent comparison to marijuana. Since many Christians accept alcohol use, would a Christian approach to legal pot be similar to alcohol? There are both similarities and dissimilarities to consider. The Bible has a “yes and no” perspective on alcohol, recognizing its capacity to “gladden the heart,” seeing in it a sign of God’s kingdom joy, with Jesus himself turning water into wine to extend a wedding party.
Yet while affirming alcohol, Scripture stands decidedly against drunkenness, acknowledging the harmful effects and decisions that flow from intoxication. Impairment through substances compromises our agency as image-bearers of God, inhibiting our responsibility and capacity to wisely steward and soberly reign over all creation. One of the benefits this current cannabis cultural moment provides the imbibing Christian is the opportunity to reconsider their relationship to alcohol. Have we overreacted to prior legalistic prohibitions towards alcohol by embracing happy hour and uncritically lifting up one too many glasses?
The biblical distinction between an affirmation of alcohol as a created good and its misuse in drunkenness as a moral wrong is where a dissimilarity from cannabis emerges. While most people can enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail and not get drunk, marijuana’s general efficacy is a psychotropic “high” of altered mental state and perception. At minimum, it’s significant to note that the cannabis culture surrounding marijuana in the West is one dedicated to attaining a high.
Such cultural and contextual discernment is part of the needed wisdom today. Biblical injunctions against drunkenness emerge from the context of ancient bacchanalian Roman cultural practices and behaviors that shaped a lifestyle out of sync with godly image-bearing. The gospel alternative was one of self-control and clear-headed sobriety. We should ask, then, how is pot understood and celebrated in our Western culture? Legalization is a culturally legitimating act, so what is being legitimized? Cannabis culture celebrates a disengaged tuning out of the difficulties of life and is often marked by an immature shiftlessness or idleness. The gospel certainly directs a Christian away from the life and practices of such a culture.
We also do well to ask why our culture is so vigorously embracing recreational marijuana. What is the enthusiasm behind gummy edibles or THC drinks that make the high of cannabis even more readily accessible and acceptable to wider audiences? What existential void or spiritual vacuum is our culture seeking to fill with the altered-state experiences of cannabis?
In this discernment, it is important to clearly declare that Christians are free to consume cannabis where it is legal. The gospel’s scandalous sweep of freedom declares that all things are permitted; yet the gospel’s accompanying wisdom asks insistently about the direction and use of that freedom, declaring that not all things are beneficial. Christian freedom is not unfettered liberty but always in service of God and neighbor. Serious reflection on a Christian’s relationship to cannabis consumption must ask: How does this benefit my neighbour, physically and spiritually?
This Christian call to neighbor love is an important rejoinder to the hazy notion that marijuana consumption is a harmless activity that affects no one else. We are created as social beings, with lives that are profoundly interconnected. Christians confess a countercultural truth: we are not our own but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has set us free from sin, restoring our humanity as image-bearers of God, and so sets us free to wholeheartedly live for him and our neighbor.
Which means that a Christian will regularly wonder: does cannabis help me to better love and serve God and my neighbor? How might cannabis use impact my teenage neighbor who struggles with a lousy self-image and the burden of peer pressure? How might my free use of cannabis harm those prone or vulnerable to substance dependencies, or those who feel stripped of dignity and already inclined to seek any form of solace to numb their pain? Wouldn’t they be better served by working hard to improve the poverty, unemployment, anxiety, dysfunction and loneliness that afflicts instead of offering a cheap substitute solace?
The big question for a Christian is, does cannabis use promote engaged responsible image-bearing and compassionate neighbour love? In that light, the decision to not use cannabis comes clear.
A Christian witness in this cultural moment—pushed further to the margins of post-Christian culture—will look very much like it has in previous eras and cultures: peculiar. It will be to live as a countercultural community of disciplined freedom, patient neighbor love for a broken world, and hopeful obedience to God. It will offer to all the substitute cannabis consolations a compelling reality of human flourishing in a disciplined and joyful alternative community under the Lord of all things—including cannabis—Jesus Christ.