It had to happen sooner or later, and I’m not sure if 15 years old counts as “sooner” or “later” these days. But my oldest daughter just had her first encounter with peer marijuana use, resulting of course in a serious conversation about marijuana, alcohol, and morality. Yet now parents are having these conversations against the backdrop of a powerful marijuana legalization movement, one that may soon win the day in most or all of the country.
How do we speak about the morality of legal drug use? Since I’ve never used marijuana, I’m relatively ignorant of its effects, but some principles and priorities are rather clear.
This is how I framed the issue with my daughter (commenters, I welcome your feedback): First, drunkenness is wrong. Scriptures too numerous to cite condemn drunkenness, and real-world experience clearly and abundantly reinforces scriptural truth. Drunkenness can and does kill. Drunkenness impairs moral decision-making. Drunkenness renders a person vulnerable to assault and exploitation. By contrast, the godly person is to be “sober-minded,” an admonition repeated in scripture.
At the same time, condemnations of drunkenness, and the admonition to be “sober-minded” do not mean that one must limit, for example, alcohol intake to the point where it has no effect at all on a person. Psalm 104 praises the God who provides the wine that “gladdens human hearts,” and of course Jesus’s first miracle transformed water into wine at a wedding while the merry-making was fully underway, leading to this exchange:
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Now I know there are some Christians who in good faith believe this just meant Jesus made some great grape juice, but I don’t think that’s convincing from context.
Taken together, the moral principle seems relatively clear: One can drink (consume an intoxicant), but one cannot lose control.
My daughter’s immediate question cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Then what does it mean to lose control?”
I’m always uncomfortable with “how far can I go” conversations. We live in freedom but also against the backdrop of a call to holiness, where “should” trumps “can,” and our lives are ultimately to be lived to the glory of God. Here, however, was my paraphrased answer: To lose control means being unable to fulfill my moral responsibilities. As a husband, father, attorney, and officer, I have certain enduring, nondelegable duties. I can’t fail to be available to my kids because I’m drunk or stoned. I can’t dishonor my employer or the uniform because I’m “letting off steam.” If you can’t fulfill your responsibilities, then you’re out of control.
Biblically, the context for sober-mindedness comes from the need to resist evil: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” When your capacity to resist evil – to resist temptation – is impaired, then you’re not in the right frame of mind.
Critically, a prescription pad doesn’t relieve one of these responsibilities. I know individuals who look askance at marijuana but can and do medicate themselves into a near-stupor with a doctor’s permission. Legality is not morality, and all mind-altering drugs should be considered in the context of purpose, necessity, and effect.
So is it moral to smoke marijuana if one can maintain self-control? Can it merely “gladden the heart” without leading to something like drunkenness? Those are the key questions, and they’re not going away.
Welcome to the new normal.