On Marijuana: Understanding Why it is Immoral to Use Recreationally
Part I: The Church’s Teachings on Drugs
By Jeremy Hausotter
Oct. 10, 2020
Table of Contents
A disturbing trend today is the rise in marijuana usage and the popularity its advocates enjoy, not only outside the Church, but also within her. Such a trend is troubling because marijuana itself is a dangerous drug and the Church has explicitly judged it and all other drugs to be immoral to use outside of therapeutic purposes. Whenever I see discussions concerning the debate about marijuana, it usually boils down to opponents citing paragraph 2291 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) versus advocates and those who propose moderation, arguing in manners such as “it never affected me” or that “marijuana is like alcohol” and so the argument goes that if alcohol is legal and is a drug, then why not marijuana?
While in of itself it is good that there are many who correctly interpret CCC 2291 as a rejection of using marijuana, there are others who do not see this condemnation of drugs as also targeting marijuana. These discussions never develop beyond this lone citation of CCC 2291 however. I am speaking in generalities here of course based upon many observations of discussions on the matter and how they developed. In general the trend of these discussions tragically remains at a superficial level failing to penetrate deeper into the problem at hand.
The issues surrounding the debate on marijuana is exacerbated in part by the fact that Trent Horn, a noted Catholic apologist from Catholic Answers, and other Catholic apologists have failed to move the discussion of marijuana from this superficial level to a proper analysis. This only perpetuates the cycle of mediocrity in Catholic discussions and debates concerning marijuana. Catholic public discourse appears to suffer two main problems of ignorance: first, many Catholics do not seem to realize that the Church did in fact condemn the usage of marijuana; and second, Catholics, and society at large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of the medical facts surrounding cannabis. Parts I and II of this investigation are written to explicitly address both problems respectively.
My task here is polemical for my goal is nothing else than shifting the marijuana debate to this deeper level and changing public discourse, within Catholicism at the very least, to understand that marijuana poses a serious risk for individuals and society at large.
This investigation is broken up into five parts: Part I analyzes the Church’s teachings on the morality of recreational drug usage. Next, Part II discusses the health effects marijuana has on man, which includes both its medicinal benefits and detriments as reported by medical professionals in academic journals; Part III is dedicated to a Biblical analysis on the distinction between drugs and alcohol. Part IV investigates the theology of drugs and the origin of modernity’s drug crisis according to Joseph Ratzinger. And lastly, Part V addresses the philosophical question as to whether or not drugs can be a gateway to religious experience and encounters with the Divine.
1. The Church’s Teaching on Drugs
1.1. What the Catechism Teaches
The Catechism teaches in paragraph 2291 the following:
The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.
Drug usage is rejected because of grave harm these substances inflict upon man and society. Drugs can only be licitly used therapeutically which means for medicinal purposes alone. Any other usage is strictly immoral and is in fact a mortal sin. We hence obtain a first principle: it is immoral to use a substance which harms oneself.
This principle is not absolute like the prohibition against abortion. There is a caveat, namely, that one can use a drug for medical purposes according to the principle of double effect. Double effect requires that there must be a sufficient reason for a doctor to prescribe the drug in the first place in order to justify the use of a dangerous drug. Morphine, for example, is highly addictive but still has a legitimate medical role in relieving pain for patients in extreme pain when other medicines have failed. Outside of this medicinal purpose, however, the prohibition against drug usage is absolute. The Catechism therefore teaches this second principle which is inseparable from the first: that the only time one can use a dangerous drug is within the limits of a justified medical treatment plan.
While this paragraph from the Catechism helps orientate ourselves in understanding the problem surrounding drugs, it is also rather short. There is a whole range of questions left unanswered. What constitutes as a drug? Does this category include alcohol, tobacco or marijuana? Is the condemnation of drug usage premised upon negative health effects alone?
The question as to whether alcohol and tobacco are drugs is answered by the Catechism. The Catechism appears to distinguish both from drugs. CCC 2290 allows the usage of tobacco and alcohol provided that the virtue of temperance is observed. This point is clarified in two of Church’s documents, Charter for Health Care Workers and Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction where a clear distinction is made between alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. The Charter for example states “Unlike taking drugs, alcohol is not in itself illicit” and cites John Paul II: “its moderate use as a drink is not contrary to moral law” and “it is only the abuse that is reprehensible”. The Charter likewise states that with respect to tobacco that its moral unlawfulness is in the abuse of it and not in its use. It does however caution us that the threshold for its licit use is decreasing due to all of the negative health effects tobacco causes. Part III will return to the question of alcohol.
1.2. Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction
The Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care issued the document Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction in 2001 (CDDA henceforth). This document grew out of a series of conferences hosted by the Vatican in 1997 with over 90 health professionals from 45 countries in attendance and claims to be faithful to John Paul II’s teachings on drugs (and in fact quotes from the Pope copiously).
The Church document defines what is a drug in the following manner:
Generally, a drug is either a natural substance or a product of chemical synthesis, which, when consumed, modifies human behavior and acts on the central nervous system. This definition includes both legal and illegal drugs. Intoxication also implies the concept of abuse.
CDDA notes that all the products which cause dependency have the common property of increasing dopamine, which produces intense feelings of pleasure. Drugs stimulate the brain’s neurons to release dopamine and hence why they become so addictive.
CDDA teaches that in general “drugs testify to a kind of contempt for life and represent a personal attempt… of extricating oneself from reality and from the circumstances of human life.” The usage of drugs is done in part out of a desire to supplement life and this has the effects of destroying lives and relationships while also dimming the mind. Drugs also have an inner tendency to promote an individualism and egocentrism ordered towards self-isolation.
1.2.1. Drugs Promote the Cultures of Death and Nihilism
Citing John Paul II, CDDA affirms that drugs take first place amongst the threats endangering the youth. Drugs are strictly identified with the culture of death threatening to overtake the culture of life. “Using drugs is anti-life.” Drug dealers are worse than slave dealers according to the Pope, because while slave owners deprive man of his dignity the drug dealer leads his or her victims to the destruction of their personality and personhood.
The document identifies some of the causes for the motivations why one would abuse drugs including: “a lack of clear and convincing motivations for life”, a “vacuum of values”, the acceptance of the idea that “life is not worth living”, loneliness, social alienation, and the search for an artificial paradise. Underneath these causes is the origin out of which these arise, that is, an atmosphere permeated by religious skepticism, hedonism, and an existential void colored with violence and a sense of purposelessness of life itself. Drugs seek to fill this spiritual void. “The growth in the market and of the consumption of drugs show that we are in a world devoid of almost all hope, where vigorous human and spiritual purposes are lacking.” Drug abuse represents a world permeated with nihilism. It is out of nihilism that man finds motivators for his turning to drugs.
1.2.2. The Addict is the Problem
Drugs destroy the personality of the user. “What people seek in drugs… is ‘the endless perversion of human aspiration…, the pseudo-ecstasy of a world that does not believe, but all the same cannot shake off its shoulders the tension of the soul towards paradise.” The problem is not with drugs themselves, but the spiritual diseases motivating the person to abuse drugs in the first place. Drug usage is the existential appropriation of nihilism turned against oneself in the attempt to annihilate one’s existence.
In effect, the problem is not in the drug, but in the sickness of the spirit that leads to drugs, as Pope John Paul II reminds us: ‘There is need to recognize that there is a link between the lethal sickness caused by the abuse of drugs and the sickness of the spirit that leads the person to escape from oneself and seek deceptive satisfactions in avoiding reality, to the point of cancelling completely the meaning of one’s existence.”
Elsewhere the document repeats this, teaching that the problem is not the drug but in the drug abuser and his or her interior, spiritual life. CDDA states that
Drugs are not the main problem of the addict. The consumption of drugs is only a false answer to the lack of a positive sense of life. At the center of drug addiction is the human being, a unique subject, with his or her interior life and specific personality, the object of the love of the Father, who in his plan of salvation calls everyone to the sublime vocation of sonship in the Son. However, the realization of such a vocation is — together with happiness in this world — seriously compromised by the use of drugs, because it influences in a harmful way the sensibility and right exercise of the intellect and will, in the human person, the image of God.
The rising drug phenomenon is a clarion call for evangelization. If people are turning to drugs due to a belief in the meaninglessness and valuelessness of life, is this not a sign that these people have not been properly evangelized and are desperately in need of the love of Christ? The drug abuse culture is a symptom and component of the culture of death, to which we must absolutely fight against through the promotion of a culture of life and meaning grounded in the kerygma of Christ. We as Catholics need to be witnesses to the meaningful and valueful purposes of life in living out our vocations. It is in such intentional living out and witnessing as priests, consecrated religious, and married couples raising families that our nihilistic culture is most effectively countered. In doing so we help create a culture that restores value, love and life. It is such a restoration that CDDA urges everyone to participate in, and to create relationships rich in these values.
1.2.3. The Moral Condemnation of Drug Usage
These causes outlined by CDDA direct us to the following conclusion: “there is need to totally reject the use of drugs.” Following John Paul II, drug dealers are defined as “merchants of death”. The moral argument against drug usage is that by using these substances man commits an unjustified and irrational act of renunciation of his vocation to be a person, for this action is a renunciation of “thinking, willing and acting as free persons”.
CDDA next condemns the view that one can have a right or freedom to do drugs. There is no such thing as a freedom to consume drugs for two reasons based on the fact that man is a human person: first, no one has the right to harm himself; and second, no one has the right to abdicate one’s personal dignity.
Immediately after this, CDDA follows John Paul II in condemning both the liberalization and legalization of drugs. “Drugs are an evil, and you do not make concessions to an evil.” CDDA hence condemns any government distribution of drugs. This includes “soft” drugs and not only hard drugs.
2. The Condemnation of Marijuana
2.1. The Distinction Between Soft and Hard Drugs
This may come as a surprise to some, but CDDA rejects the distinction between soft and hard drugs repeatedly. This is due in part because “soft drugs” promote the loss of attention, alteration of one’s sense of reality, isolation from society, and encourages the abuser to seek out and use stronger drugs, such that when the question is approached from a pharmacological perspective the distinction between hard and soft drugs cannot be maintained. This is in part due to the fact that THC stimulates neurons to release dopamine (and if we recall the common property which all drugs share).
Cannabis is specifically mentioned by CDDA as a drug some would consider to be “soft” but argues that cannabis cannot be a “soft” drug due to the serious health consequences it has for its users, concluding that: “Considering all the facts, it is irresponsible to consider cannabis in a trivial way and to think of it as being ‘a soft drug’, that is, one without remarkable effects on the organism.”
Later on in discussing the question of the legalization of drugs the CDDA again rejects categorizing cannabis as a “soft” drug. Drug advocates want to give cannabis such a classification in order to legalize it. CDDA warns that this would create mass confusion in society and trivialize cannabis in public opinion, for such a propaganda scheme would generate a public ignorance of cannabis’ real physiological and spiritual dangers.
2.2. Cannabis is Another Hard Drug
Structurally speaking, after these condemnations of interpreting cannabis as a soft drug, CDDA discusses several drug products and their dangerous effects on the human person. In this section of the document cannabis is equally placed alongside cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, LSD, and crack. In other words, in the mind of the Pontifical Council cannabis is in the same category of substances with the same level of danger as these “hard” drugs. In rejecting the distinction of cannabis as a “soft” drug this Church document placed marijuana in the same category with heroin and cocaine as equally dangerous. It is therefore a mortal sin to use marijuana outside of legitimate medical purposes. (Note however that by the term "dangerous" we are referring to moral danger and pharmacological dangers such as impaired brain functioning. We do not mean to equate marijuana and cocaine in the meaning of physical toxicity, for cocaine is more debilitating in this manner.)
2.3. The Medical Justification for Rejecting Recreational Cannabis Usage
CDDA gave an extensive summary of the health effects of cannabis on the human person for justification as to why cannabis is not a “soft” drug and requires the same condemnation as “hard” drugs. Here is a summarized list:
Light dosage effects: slight euphoria, sense of satisfaction, desire to laugh, slight drowsiness.
Strong dosage effects: difficulty executing actions, upset of time perception, visual precision, and immediate memory, lethargy.
Dangerous when operating machinery or vehicles.
Increase cardiac rhythm, decrease salivation, swelling of blood vessels, nausea.
Similar risks to smoking tobacco.
Concentration and learning difficulties.
Excessive worry about obtaining cannabis.
CDDA 105. In more fragile individuals cannabis can trigger:
Hallucinations and hallucinatory phenomena.
Strong anxiety, serious psychic disorder and panic crises.
CDDA 106: Repeated use leads to psychic dependence of medium to high level.
CDDA 107: THC causes disorders in sensorial, visual, auditory, spatial, and temporal perceptions.
The Catholic Church in CDDA wisely rejects any moral legitimacy to recreational marijuana. Cannabis falls under the moral condemnation of drugs in CCC 2291. Pope Francis has also spoken out recently against the legalization of marijuana. Marijuana has serious side effects and so it cannot be taken lightly or treated as a “soft” drug. Doing such trivializes a substance that is in reality extremely dangerous to use.
All drugs are immoral to use for non-therapeutic purposes because such usage is an abandonment of one’s calling to be a person. Metaphysically, persons are endowed with the faculties of free will and rationality These are two of man’s deepest goods and values as a free person that drugs pervert; and why theologians like Ratzinger call drugs the endless perversion of human aspiration. Drugs substitute man’s fulfillment as a person found in seeking out a healthy life through relationships, work, and hobbies by replacing it with a chemical satisfaction and dependence. One cannot defend a right to use drugs because man does not have a right to abdicate his metaphysical status as a created person and the demand this places upon himself to fulfill this calling.
Now that we have given a brief outline of the Church’s teaching, our next task in Part II is to develop further the medical problems associated with marijuana consumption. The motivation for this is twofold: first, to demonstrate that the medical conclusions given by the Vatican are not something peculiar to a religious organization but rather represent a wider consensus in the medical field; second, to bring to the reader’s attention the medical myth-making process currently in motion within American society and the real medical facts debunking many of the medical claims about marijuana that are promulgated by its advocates.
One final observation is that the act of smoking marijuana is also morally illicit. It is immoral to use marijuana recreationally so the only valid time one could possibly smoke it is for medicinal purposes. However, there is a consensus among medical professionals that smoking marijuana is not a suitable method for this drug’s delivery because it causes many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco smoking and is harder to control dosage. Therefore one cannot morally smoke marijuana regardless of the reasons why he or she is using it.
Excursus: Trent Horn’s Analysis on Marijuana
Trent Horn’s argument is rather simple. The Church has no official teaching on marijuana. Cannabis is like alcohol. The Catechism teaches that alcohol can be consumed as long as temperance remains intact. Since cannabis is like alcohol, it too can be consumed without violating the virtue of temperance. Cannabis is like alcohol because both possess an addictive capacity and produce changes on the brain. When both are abused one can suffer physical harm. One argument against marijuana usage Trent Horn argues is that if using it would be a cause for the sin of scandal, otherwise one can use it prudentially within the domain of temperance. Trent Horn also notes that it is Catholic teaching that one has a moral obligation to follow the law, and so one cannot use marijuana in a state where it is illegal. In summary, marijuana is permissible if it is legal, in moderation, does not give rise to scandal, does not cause addiction or physical damage.
We can reply in brief here by observing first that the Church does explicitly condemn marijuana usage in Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction as a dangerous drug. Second, the reason the Church condemned cannabis is due to its detrimental effects to man and society. This is further developed in Part II. Third, there is a distinction that needs to be made between marijuana, and drugs in general, from alcohol not only at a pharmacological level but more importantly at a theological level. This is the topic of Part III. One further point that is not addressed by Trent Horn’s two brief analyses is the question concerning the legalization of marijuana. If the discussion of marijuana remains at the level as presented by him, then there is a real ambiguity as to whether it is a good thing to legalize this substance since the case for its illegal status is dubious if marijuana is just another alcohol-like substance.
 Trent Horn does not realize this fact since in one episode he states that there is no official teaching on cannabis. See https://www.catholic.com/audio/cal/cal-8146.
 CCC 2291.
 “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others' safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.” CCC 2290.
 Charter for Health Care Workers 97. Quoted from John Paul II’s address To the participants at the International Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Nov. 23, 1991, n. 4.
 “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.” Charter for Health Care Workers 99.
 This does raise an interesting question as to whether the teachings here on tobacco can be reversed. I am of the opinion that one ought not to consume tobacco products precisely because of its adverse health consequences.
 CDDA, 171. All references will be to the paragraph numbering and not pagination of the English edition published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
 Ibid, 89-90.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 5.
 Ibid, 9.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 30.
 Charter for Health Care Workers 96.
 CDDA, 36.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 38.
 Ibid, 37.
 Ibid, 39.
 Ibid, 40. Quote of Cardinal Sodano citing Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, A Turning Point for Europe?
 Ibid, 41. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid, 66.
 Ibid, 54.
 Ibid, 42. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid, 42.
 Ibid, 43.
 Ibid, 43. Cf. CDDA 180-181.
 Ibid, 47-52. “The experiments carried out so far in certain countries, on liberalization and legalization of drugs have been disastrous.” CDDA 20.
 Ibid, 47.
 Ibid, 52.
 CDDA 50, 52, 107, 168.
 Ibid, 50
 Ibid, 107.
 Ibid, 168.
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