Rough Draft

Marijuana: Understanding Why it is Immoral to Use Recreationally
Part III: The Catholic Understanding of Alcohol and Marijuana

By Jeremy Hausotter
Oct. 10, 2020

Introduction[1]

Our task here is to address the question of the difference between marijuana and alcohol because inevitably many argue that marijuana should be treated like alcohol and suggest that marijuana can be consumed moderately. Part III is dedicated to this question and is composed of two sections: the first considers the question from the medical perspective, and the second is strictly theological. It will be argued that alcohol and drugs in general, and marijuana in particular, are distinct types of substances that should not be treated equally or analogously. Further, drugs should be compared not to alcohol but with alcoholism and drunkenness.

1. Alcohol as a Physical Substance

The debate concerning the legalization of marijuana usually at some point makes an argument based on alcohol. Alcohol is an accepted drug, so why not marijuana? Alcohol after all is a physically toxic substance and has many known physical and psychological problems when abused. 29 people die daily in the United States due to car accidents involving a driver who is impaired by alcohol.[2]

The first thing to note about this is that normal alcohol usage is not binge drinking or getting drunk. Normal marijuana usage, on the other hand, is analogous to binge drinking and not merely drinking.[3] It is estimated that 2.5 mg of THC is equivalent to one alcoholic drink. Some researchers suggest that the normal amount of THC consumed by a marijuana user is about 100 mg or more, meaning that the normal marijuana user is consuming an equivalent of 40 drinks if not more.[4] (This is not a statement that all cannabis users consume 100mg of THC at a time, as some consume more or less, but rather to establish a baseline for comparison. Some marijuana users have informed me that they use only 25-30mg of THC, which is still about 10 to 12 drinks worth). While this shows that marijuana is not as physically toxic as alcohol, it also shows that the human body builds up a THC tolerance quicker than it does alcohol and dispels the myth that marijuana usage is like having a cup of wine with one’s meal. There is no such thing as moderate marijuana usage when THC is consumed in such large quantities.

Another distinction between the alcohol user and the marijuana user is that the majority of alcohol users do not intend or will the effects of drunkenness. Many who use marijuana on the other hand are doing so for the high, and hence why large amounts of consumed THC is considered normal and why so many marijuana users abuse other drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, and heroin.

Some claim that marijuana is as addictive as alcohol. In 2018 about 86.3% of the US population reported trying alcohol at some point during his or her lifetime and about 15 million Americans have Alcohol Use Disorder. This means that about 5.3% of the American population who tried alcohol have Alcohol Use Disorder.[5] Marijuana, on the other hand, has an addiction rate of 30%.[6] Furthermore, 60% of all substance dependence or abuse in the United States is from marijuana. This figure also does not include all those who started out using marijuana and went on to abusing alcohol and other more potent drugs (as research has shown marijuana to be in fact a gateway drug to harder drugs).

The comparison between alcohol and marijuana in one respect makes little sense, because what the marijuana user is seeking is a right to get “drunk” and making an argument in favor of being able to debilitate oneself is such a manner is irrational. In another respect one can find many discerning statistics concerning the problems and economic burdens of alcohol usage like what one does with marijuana. This does not favor marijuana legalization however, for why would a society wish to introduce a second legal substance that causes so much damage like alcohol? If anything, it is perhaps an argument for the prohibition of alcohol.[7]

Alcohol is unique as a drug in that a normal, moderate usage does not carry the problems that marijuana or other drugs have. This is why the Magisterium does not consider alcohol to be a drug, in a moral sense, unless it is abused. Alcohol is also an integrated cultural phenomenon tied to ethnic and national identities as a part of daily life. Drugs have never become so culturally appropriated. The marijuana culture today is a rather new invention in human history, and only time will prove how destructive such a society will be to national life.[8]

2. Theological Dimensions of Alcohol

2.1. The Church’s Position on Alcohol and Tobacco

We have already observed in Part I that the Church teaches that the illicitness of using alcohol and tobacco is not in the mere use of these two substances, but rather in their abuse. The Catechism teaches that both can be used morally as long as the virtue of temperance is observed.[9] The Charter for Health Care Workers likewise made similar statements, citing John Paul II as its source for its teachings on alcohol.[10] While both substances are permitted, the Charter observed that the threshold for the licit use of tobacco is diminishing due the increase in medical knowledge about this drug. This statement raises the question whether such use can in the future be condemned.

The Church’s document Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction (CDDA) adds some more details to the Church’s teachings. The cause of alcohol and tobacco abuse is the same as drug abuse, that at its origin is an atmosphere devoid of values, ruled by hedonism and nihilism and in such a spiritual, existential void man turns towards drugs and alcohol in order to fill it.[11] The fight against alcoholism is the same as that against drug usage, requiring a restoration of the values of life and love illuminated by religious faith.[12] CDDA cites the Charter in stating that alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances and subject to abuse.[13] Alcohol and tobacco are toxic substances which cannot be treated lightly or trivially.[14]

 

Surprisingly, CDDA teaches that alcoholic drunkenness is as much of a danger as using marijuana due to the adverse health effects alcoholic intoxication has on human physiology.[15] CDDA makes a distinction here however. Moderate usage of alcohol is not a drug. Alcohol only becomes a drug once it is abused.[16]

 

One final observation from CDDA is that in regards to the legalization question, states are obligated to reject legalization attempts of drugs. A state’s efforts against drug legalization fighting its use requires an additional responsibility to struggle against alcohol and tobacco abuse.[17]

2.2. Towards a Biblical Theology of Alcohol and Drugs

Theologically speaking, alcohol in a real way probes into the foundations of mystery and God. To understand this claim we must first observe that alcohol has been given two different general interpretations focused on the question as to whether the Bible prohibits the consumption of alcohol. The framing of any investigation into the theological dimensions of alcohol within this dialectical context does not necessarily involve, and usually fails to do so, investigating the theology of alcohol and only addresses the legality of its consumption.

2.2.1. Scripture’s Negative Attitude Towards Alcohol

The teetotalers argue that Scripture condemns alcohol consumption, which it does. There are many examples of alcohol consumption being portrayed negatively in that Scripture denies the moral validity of inebriation.

St. Paul lists the sin of drunkenness with mortal sins such as sexual immorality, idolatry, and witchcraft (Gal. 5:18-22). These are contrasted with the life in the Spirit and His fruits. In Romans drunkenness is a work of darkness contrasted with the works of Christ as works of light (Rom. 13:11-14). In this same passage St. Paul calls drunkenness a work of the flesh and both he and St. Peter call for putting away a life lived according to the flesh and follow the will of God (1 Pet. 4:1-4). There are many other passages which condemn drunkenness,[18] affirms real consequences for the sin of drunkenness,[19] and other passages which associate drunkenness with apocalyptic imagery and judgment of the wicked.[20] [21]

The first mention of wine in the Bible is in Genesis 9. We read that after Noah made a covenant with God he planted a garden and made wine, got drunk, and laid on the ground naked. His son saw him naked, and this series of events describe Noah’s Fall, similar to Adam’s. Here we see two themes from Genesis 1-4, man’s duty to till, and his nakedness, as becoming a possible source of obstacle of fallen man. Noah’s Fall here was due to his indecent exposure which ought to remain hidden, and wine, the fruit of man’s tilling now perverted.

Sexual sin and drunkenness becomes a subtheme of the Old Testament. After being saved by God from the destruction of Sodom and Gammorah, Lot and his two daughters lived in a cave. The daughters in their foolishness got him drunk and slept with him in order to have children, from which the descendents of Moab and Ammon came (Gen. 19: 30-38). Such actions and Scripture’s condemnations appear to support such views condemning the use of alcohol wholesale, but this however is not the whole story.

While drug references in the Bible is harder to find, an argument can be made against drug usage based on the condemnation of drunkenness. Drunkenness like getting high off of drugs is the abdication of the vocation to be a person. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the sorry existential state of the drunk which can equally be applied to the drug addict.

29 Who has woe? Who has sorrow?/Who has strife? Who has complaining?/Who has wounds without cause?/Who has redness of eyes?

30 Those who tarry long over wine,/those who go to try mixed wine.

31 Do not look at wine when it is red,/when it sparkles in the cup/and goes down smoothly.

32 At the last it bites like a serpent,/and stings like an adder.

33 Your eyes will see strange things,/and your mind utter perverse things.

34 You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,/like one who lies on the top of a mast.

35 “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;/they beat me, but I did not feel it./When shall I awake?/I will seek another drink.”

 

Does not the drug user “see strange things” in hallucinations, psychosis, and schizophrenic states? Does not the mind become irrational when one is high? Does not one become desensitized to reality, not knowing what he or she is doing or what is going on? Does not the addict seek another drink or joint after such experiences? The parallels between this passage and drug usage is striking.

Scripture calls for sobriety. Sobriety and self-control are Christian virtues that are repeatedly called for by the New Testament authors.[22] We are “not to be slanderers or slaves to drink”.[23] Drugs are sins against sobriety. They cloud our judgment and make us slaves to the particular substance we are addicted to. We must keep in mind that Satan roars like a lion ready to devour us; one of his tricks to do so is compromising our sobriety.[24]

2.2.2. Towards a Proper Theology of Alcohol

On the other hand, contrary to the teetotaler’s position, Scripture does affirm the goodness of alcohol. We read for example in Sir. 31:27: “Wine is like life to men,/if you drink it in moderation./What is life to a man who is without wine?/It has been created to make men glad.” and 1 Tim. 5:23: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Another significant passage is the Wedding at Cana in John 2 where Jesus turns water into wine as his first miracle. If wine was an evil to be avoided then Jesus would have certainly not performed such a deed.

 

The Sirach passage quoted above is significant because the author compares wine to life. Psalm 104:15 further identifies wine to be a gift from God to gladden man’s heart, a theme also found in Sirach. Sirach 39:26-27 places wine within the basic needs of man like food, water and fire. These basic needs are goods for the godly and become instruments for evil by sinners (which everyone is), and as basic goods they can be used in a manner that is good or evil.

26 Basic to all the needs of man’s life/are water and fire and iron and salt

and wheat flour and milk and honey,/the blood of the grape, and oil and clothing.

27 All these are for good to the godly,/just as they turn into evils for sinners.

In Isaac’s blessing of Jacob a plenitude of wine is considered to be a blessing from God (Gen. 27:28). Scripture therefore does not outright condemn alcohol usage, but excessive usage. Wine, when moderately used, is explicitly identified as a good for man and a blessing from God; this good is so fundamental that it is even compared to man’s life. It is hence on solid Biblical foundations that the Catechism teaches that alcohol can be licitly consumed provided that the virtue of temperance is observed.[25]

 

The two Sirach passages give us a clue into the mystery of wine itself. Wine is sometimes referred to as the “blood of the grape” such as just quoted above.[26] This phrase is pregnant because blood is the life of the flesh and it is by blood that the sacrifices of the Old Testament made atonement. We read in Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.” The blood of animals was considered so sacred that the Israelites and early Christians were prohibited from consuming blood.[27] “Blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.”[28] If wine is the blood of the grape, then wine both possesses a sacrality and theologically represents life.

 

It should come as no surprise then that wine was a regular offering to God. In the times of the Patriarchs wine was a normal offering (Gen. 14:18; 35:14). This was continued under the Mosaic Law. Wine was part of the offering in priestly ordination (Ex. 29:40) and the offering of first fruits (Lev. 23:13; Deut. 18:4). Offerings of cereal, rams and bulls each required an offering of wine in accompaniment (Num. 15:5,7,10; 28:14). The Levites likewise receive wine through the tithe system as the priest’s portion (Num. 18:12,27,30). The sacrifices to God were a time of feasting upon wine, grain, and flesh and done so in the presence of God (cf. Deut. 14:26).[29]

 

The offering of bread and wine in Gen. 14:18 is perhaps the most significant, for it was the offering made by Melchizedek through whom the Davidic line were priests. In other words, Jesus as a descendent of David was a priest in the order of Melchizedek and at the Last Supper made an offering of bread and wine, but now transubstantiated into Himself, God (Matt. 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). It is bread and wine which are the true matter for this sacrifice, nothing else.[30] The blood of the grape is transformed into the blood of God offered for man’s atonement. The life of wine now the life of Christ. Before there was a feasting in the presence of God, but now God’s presence is physical, in the here and now; and in the eucharistic wine man consumes God. The eucharistic bread and wine is hence said to be the source and summit of the Christian faith.[31]

 

In more precise terms, wine is a type for the Eucharistic sacrifice at the Last Supper. Just as Jonah was a type or prefigurement of Christ and His resurrection, so is wine in the eucharistic meal. The prefigurement of wine can be demonstrated in other ways.

 

We have already mentioned that wine signifies God’s blessings upon man and that it is a gift given by God for man. The plenitude of wine is hence a sign of God’s covenantal fidelity. By keeping God’s commandments one enjoys God’s blessings which includes grain and wine. We read in Deuteronomy 7:12-13:

And because you hearken to these ordinances, and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep; 13 he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will also bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock, in the land which he swore to your fathers to give you.

This likewise entails that wine has an eschatological element. Those who are faithful to God’s covenant enjoy the gift of wine, but those who do not are described as drinking the wine of God’s wrath (cf. Jer. 25:15). Wine is symbolic of both divine blessing and divine wrath.

 

Wine as a type for the eucharist transforms these themes as well. The eucharistic wine becomes one of God’s greatest gifts to man showering blessings upon him, and is the sign of the New Covenant like how wine was a sign of God’s blessing in the Mosaic Covenant. Furthermore, the sign of eucharistic wine still directs man towards that perfect communion found in God’s Beatitude. The eucharist also becomes an object of God’s wrath. If one were to consume the eucharist in an unworthy manner, that is, in a state of mortal sin, doing such brings judgment upon him or her. St. Paul relates stories about the Corinthians who were consuming the eucharist unworthily and were becoming sick, even dying (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Conclusion

Theologically speaking, it makes no sense for a Catholic to equivocate alcohol and drug usage. Drug users are like the drunkards and marijuana users are no different. Alcohol represents life, from the offerings of Melchizedek, the blessings of God in the Mosaic Covenant and sacrificial feasting in God’s presence, to the New Covenant where wine literally becomes Life, the Life of Christ and thereby we live in Christ and Christ in us physically and spiritually. Excessive alcohol usage, on the other hand, is always associated with death, God’s wrath, and apocalyptic imagery. Drug usage is no different because the sin is the same, the abdication of man’s vocation to be a person. Here we repeat St. Peter’s warning: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[32]

 

Endnotes

[1] All Scripture citations come from the RSV-CE.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. URL: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/atod.

[3] Tell Your Children, 106.

[4] Ibid, 105.

[5] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

[6] Hasin DS, Saha TD, Kerridge BT, et al. Prevalence of Marijuana Use Disorders in the United States Between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(12):1235-1242. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.1858

[7] Gogek makes this type of argument in Marijuana Debunked.

[8] If marijuana is evil to consume recreationally, then a culture centered on such a purpose or end is itself an evil and a blight to national life. From evil fruits can only come more evil and the misery that follows. Such a manifestation of a drug culture, and in particular, a marijuana culture within the United States is another symptom of the culture of death.

[9] CCC 2290.

[10] “Unlike taking drugs, alcohol is not in itself illicit: "its moderate use as a drink is not contrary to moral law." Within reasonable limits wine is a nourishment. "It is only the abuse that is reprehensible": alcoholism, which causes dependency, clouds the conscience and, in the chronic stage, produces serious harm to the body and the mind.” Charter for Health Care Workers, 97. “With regard to tobacco also, the ethical unlawfulness is not in its use but in its abuse. At the present time it is established that excessive smoking damages the health and causes dependency. This leads to a progressive lowering of the threshold of abuse.” Ibid, 99.

[11] CDDA, 38.

[12] Ibid, 54.

[13] CDDA, 83. Cf. Charter for Health Care Workers, 92.

[14] “No toxic substance is trivial or harmless, and it does not matter what may be a drug, even tobacco or alcohol.” CDDA, 158.

[15] “Alcoholic drunkenness is as much of a danger and could provoke in dependent individuals serious disorders like loss of vigilance, of moral sense, of self control, and also the development of aggressive and violent attitudes, the tendency to estrange oneself from reality, psychopathological problems, liver diseases, etc.” Ibid, 166.

[16] “In many societies wine and alcohol form a part of dining; obviously, since these products are not completely free from dangers, they can become drugs, provoking serious illnesses and very high rates of mortality.” Ibid, 166.

[17] Ibid, 194.

[18] Sir. 19:1, 31:30; Eccl. 10:17; Tob. 4:15; Prov 20:1, 21:17, 23:20; Joel 1:5; 1 Cor. 5:11, 6:10.

[19] Hos 4:11; Amos 6:6; Isa 5:11, 56:11; Prov 20:1; 23:20-21, 29-35.

[20] Jer. 13:12-14; Ezek. 23:32-34.

[21] Cf. “Wine” in Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn, 953-954.

[22] 1 Thess. 5:6, 8; 1 Tim. 3:2, 11; 2 Tim. 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7; 5:8.

[23] Titus 2:3.

[24] 1 Pet. 5:8.

[25] Cf. CCC 2290.

[26] Cf. Gen. 49:11; Deut. 32:14; Sir. 50:15.

[27] Gen. 9:4, Lev. 7:26; Deut. 12:16, 23; Acts 15:20,29.

[28] Deut. 12:23.

[29] Note that some sacrifices required the entire offering to be burned up, whereas others was a ritual feasting in the Temple before God.

[30] STh III, Q74, A1,5-8.

[31] Sacrosanctum Concilium 10.

[32] 1 Pet. 5:8.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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