Cannabis is legal for recreational use in Canada now. It’s already far exceeding most peoples’ wildest expectations in terms of tax revenue and excitement generated. It’s a significant moment that has much of the world watching either in triumph or horror.
As a nation unto itself, Christianity is split practically down the middle. Many liberal-minded Protestants tend toward supporting cannabis legalization. Some even favor additional decriminalization for other drug types as well. They see these measures as stepping stones toward a more tolerant society — one that’s less prone to intermittent confrontation with itself (and between law enforcement and non-violent “offenders.”
Meanwhile, members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are on record calling such measures “lamentable.” They’re joined by Baptists and many other faiths within the broader world of Christianity. Of course, there is an additional division even within these factions — most notably between the older generations of the church and the younger ones.
So why such an inconsistent response to what many feel is a victory for human rights?
Is There a ‘Biblical Case’ for Using Cannabis?
There is — sort of. As with anything else lifted from this book, its meaning depends on your interpretation and imagination.
Genesis 1:12 says this: “The land produced vegetation — all sorts of seed-bearing plants, and trees with seed-bearing fruit. Their seeds produced plants and trees of the same kind. And God saw that it was good.”
The book of Ezekiel mentions a “plant of some renown.” And in Revelation chapter 22, mention is made of a remarkable tree: “…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”
The fact that God sees the workings of plants and pollinators on Earth as “good” seems to give pro-legalization Christians something to work with. Multiple verses throughout the Bible describe the Earth’s bounty — with only very rare exceptions — as gifts of God’s bounty to be enjoyed.
Naturally, opponents will point out that while he generally approves of eating and using plant matter, it doesn’t mean he condones the use of any plant that grows in dirt. Quite a few of them are lethal for animals and humans. Clearly, some were “meant” to have “value,” and some were not.
But there’s definitely “value” in cannabis use — isn’t there? It represents medical and scientific potential, which we’ll revisit in a moment. But the holiest book in Christianity doesn’t mention it by name. It has choice words for hedonists and pathological pleasure-seekers, and those are perhaps lessons worth learning no matter where you hear it first.
The Perceived Morality of Cannabis Use
But if the personal and social value of cannabis can be fairly well observed, so can its few side effects. The most obvious is guilt. Even liberal poster child Bill Clinton couldn’t quite own up to using cannabis in his youth — 25 years after the fact.
Guilt is what we make ourselves feel when we’ve done something that we learned is “wrong.” But why would religious practitioners feel guilty about using cannabis, when many of them happily drink alcohol? Maybe it’s because alcohol is just another type of punishment we put ourselves through. Smoking cannabis results in merely the guilt of not feeling guilty. Using cannabis can be a spiritual experience — but it’s as far from “religion” as it’s possible to be.
Again, it’s what we do and how we behave that determines our moral value as people.
Interestingly, religions throughout history — including Christianity — may well have been referencing cannabis when they wrote about “healing trees” and “plants of renown.” Etymologists have studied and compared Old Testament-era Aramaic and Hebrew texts and deduced that the herb used as a spiritual stimulant in ceremonies was indeed the cannabis plant.
You can interpret the above verses any way you like, just as this writer has. The Bible makes regular references to plants and herbs bearing noteworthy and occasionally miraculous properties. We can choose, or not, to take any number of these stories figuratively or literally. Since we have trouble interpreting every other line written by the Founding Fathers — practically our contemporaries compared with the characters in Genesis and Ezekiel — we can’t rely on even older texts for moral direction.
That makes the cause of compassion the best argument to make for cannabis use. And if anything should be compatible with practicing Christianity, it’s demonstrating compassion.
Science, Religion and Compassion
Pastors today are wrestling with the very real conundrum of what to say and how to counsel practitioners at their churches who are using cannabis legally. Pastors from different branches of Christianity will give vastly different answers and encourage vastly different levels of guilt in that smoking or vaping congregant.
It’s easy to sympathize with these faith leaders. Every institution in human history has had to, at some point, reevaluate its stance on issues of critical human importance. It’s the flexibility of the world’s religions that’s being tested today. Tested by, among other things, making it socially acceptable to use a plant that used to grow wild all over this country — and one whose benefits the Founding Fathers were well aware of.
The federal-level ban on cannabis research has made it difficult to compile anything but an anecdotal list of conditions and symptoms it has shown potential in preventing, treating or reversing. But anecdotal or not, it’s a long list indeed, including arthritis, chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, alcohol abuse, anxiety disorders, asthma, bipolar disorder, basal cell cancer, cervical cancer, melanoma, cerebral palsy, cirrhosis, colitis, constipation, depression, diabetes, lymphoma and many, many others.
The claim is not that cannabis necessarily reverses or cures any of these conditions, but there’s considerable and mounting evidence that it may well have some preventative characteristics. And even in the worst cases, cannabis can make even crippling side effects and symptoms, including chronic pain, more tolerable to live with.
As mentioned, Protestants and others favor legalization and decriminalization because they can imagine the potential pro-social benefits of doing so. Opponents like Catholics and Baptists are leaning on the “carnal sins” argument. But is the use of cannabis a sin? The secular equivalent of this debate can be found in our conversations about reclassifying cannabis from being a Schedule I controlled substance. It feels encouraging that the secular and Christian worlds are both asking themselves the same question, at the same time.