As legal cannabis comes to California, questioning the morality of smoking dope 

It might not impress any hippies left around from Haight-Ashbury, but it’s still a pretty big deal: Since Jan. 1, it is legal to smoke pot recreationally in California.

Proposition 64, which voters approved in 2016, legalized the sale and distribution of cannabis in the Golden State. Adults are allowed to possess up to one ounce for recreational use and can grow up to six plants individually, or more commercially with a license.

The most populous state in the union is now one of eight U.S. states where recreational pot is legal. The change gives a boost to what has been a trend for some time: more and more Americans consider it “OK” to smoke weed.

In 2016, 57 percent of Americans said they think the use of marijuana should be legal, up from 52 percent in 2014.

By the end of 2014, the year Colorado legalized recreational pot, a majority of Americans lived in states with some form of marijuana legality, whether for recreational or medicinal use.

A New York Times reporter caught 48-year-old Diana Gladden at a dispensary in Oakland on New Year’s Day buying marijuana for herself and her parents. “My mother, a very strict Southern Baptist, now thinks it’s OK because it’s legal,” she commented.

Seduced and swayed

But what is legal is not necessarily moral, and several Catholic thinkers are still warning against being seduced by the aroma of — and swayed by arguments for — legal recreational marijuana.

Those arguments range from defanging cartels that control the flow of pot into the United States to alleviating the burdens on the criminal justice system and reducing the number of young men in jail, particularly minorities, for the “victimless” crime of possessing a controlled substance.

Proponents also point out the new California law’s provision for raising state revenue from marijuana commerce, which will be earmarked for schools and youth programs.

There is no official Catholic teaching, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or elsewhere, on the morality of smoking marijuana. But the effects marijuana has on the body contrast sharply with Church teaching on the care of the human person, moral theologians say.

Father Gerald D. Coleman, adjunct professor in the Graduate Department of Pastoral Ministries at Santa Clara University, has written that recreational marijuana use “too easily slides” into an abuse of the virtue of temperance.

“The Catholic moral tradition teaches that for human persons to flourish, we must use our reason to decide what is for our well-being,” Father Coleman wrote in 2016, when Californians were about to vote on the proposition. “If any activity undermines or degrades our rational capacities, we have moral reasons to avoid that activity. The THC level in recreational marijuana often induces hallucinations and delusions, diminishes the use of one’s full reasoning abilities, and its potency suggests the real possibility of addiction.”

For E. Christian Brugger, Senior Research Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation, the same principles that apply to alcohol use and abuse apply to marijuana. The Bible “has little to say about getting high, but it has a lot to say about drunkenness,” Brugger has written. “St. Paul teaches that drunkenness is wrong because it prevents us from making wise choices and discerning God’s will (Ephesians 5:18); … Jesus condemns drunkenness because it weighs down the heart and makes us inattentive to the coming of the Lord (Luke 21:31).

“The intoxication that marijuana induces impairs our consciousness, makes us less receptive to carrying out God’s plan for our lives and lends to conduct unbecoming of a Christian,” Brugger said. “Therefore, if we smoke pot with the intention of getting high, we do wrong.”

Father Coleman said in an interview that Colorado has seen a “dangerous overuse” of recreational marijuana since its legalization “in terms of how it’s affected people’s temperance in terms of their balance in life.”

“So-called drunk driving — drunk relating to the use of marijuana, not alcohol — has gone up,” he said. “Dangerous driving habits have evolved over what they were in the past.”

The New York Times acknowledged that Colorado traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled from 2013 to 2016.

Like Brugger, Taylor Marshall, director of the New Saint Thomas Institute, has pointed out the similarities between drunkenness and getting high. Both are evil because they blur and muddy “our highest faculty — rationality.”

“Think about it. When a person is drunk, he resorts to how animals act. Drunk people act irrationally,” Marshall has written. “Drunk people don’t use language properly. They don’t think logically. Their moral compass fades. They sometimes fail to control their bodily functions. They cannot operate cars or machines because their intellect has lost its facility. The more drunk you become, the less human you act.”

Inhibits the soul

Marijuana also inhibits the intellect, Marshall said. “It doesn’t just provide a buzz (like drinking two beers). … I grant that it may not be as bad as being stone cold drunk, but it’s still a ‘high’ that inhibits the intellect. … Smoking marijuana is sinful to the extent that it inhibits the highest function of the soul. This would apply to cocaine, heroin, crystal meth and other drugs. Alcohol is different because its effects can be graduated.”

Former President Barack Obama disagreed on that last point. Obama admitted to smoking pot as a kid, calling it “a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

That seems to be a common view among young people today. But Father Coleman, former vice president for corporate ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System, pointed out some differences. Acknowledging that some people do drink too much, he argued that there is a difference between having a glass of wine to relax or to socialize with others, and using pot in order to get high.

“As a general rule, I don’t think the recreational use of marijuana is done for social reasons, although it can be,” he said in an interview. “I think the major goal is to get high and get high very quickly, whereas having a glass of wine or whisky — although that could happen — I don’t think that’s the fundamental thing going on there.”

Studies have demonstrated that the recreational use of marijuana “isolates you, makes you think only about you because you’re on this incredible high, whereas, can alcohol do that? Sure, but I don’t think that’s the major purpose of drinking, to sit down to have a drink together or a drink before dinner or whatever it happens to be,” Father Coleman said.

While it’s possible for a person to limit how “high” he gets from smoking a joint, “from what I understand, it’s much more difficult,” said Father Coleman. “For the ‘normal’ person not addicted to alcohol you don’t zoom into a high quickly, whereas with the [high] levels of THC in recreational marijuana you do, and thus, a person taking that knows that’s going to happen, but they keep smoking and smoking.”

Pia de Solenni, chancellor of the Diocese of Orange, California, said it is imperative for the Church to keep teaching the immorality of recreational marijuana use.

At the same time, she suggested, Catholics can make a big difference on the local level. Even though recreational use is legal statewide, municipalities can still restrict the use. Encinitas, for example, has a ballot initiative to not allow the sale of recreational marijuana.

“As much as it looks like a done deal, there is an option for locales to push back,” de Solenni said. “I would say that in areas where you have a strong Church presence, especially an interfaith presence — you’ve got Mormons, Catholics, whatever — that would seem to me the way to go, looking to see if we can push back on this.”

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John Burger is a news editor at

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