Pot: Legal, but still Immoral

Today marks the moment that the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Canada. This move has not been without controversy, even though opposing voices seem to be in the minority. (Note that I do not intend to address the distinct issue of medical marijuana in this post) For its part the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement some time ago noting its disapproval of Parliament’s move towards legalization.

The Bishop’s letter, however, largely argues against legalization on pragmatic and prudential grounds. It offers three reasons against this change in the law. First, it explains that many medical associations have stated that marijuana use is linked to a host of mental and physical health problems. Second, it notes that UNICEF has pointed to the widespread use of the drug among Canadian youth and stated that legalization will not reduce youth access. Third, it points to police chiefs and political leaders who have called for additional funding to enforce the new regulations. The Bishops conclude by arguing that we should not legalize crimes simply because the law is difficult to enforce. Instead they argue, that the solution to the problem is not just enforcement, but a wide range of social, family and medical supports as well as increased economic opportunity.


What is noticeably lacking in the Bishop’s letter is any articulation of a moral argument against the use of marijuana. In fact, virtually all of their arguments are supported by appeals to other authorities: UNICEF, medical associations, Police Chiefs, etc.  There remains a need for a robust presentation of the moral problems related to recreational drug use. While it may be helpful for the Church to remind us of the health risks, law enforcement challenges, or social programs related to drug use, presumably other authorities have direct responsibility to present the relevant data on this issue.  The moral standing of question, however, does pertain directly to the Church’s authority, and her theologians and philosophers have a responsibility to address it, which they generally speaking have not done.

What we do need in the midst of this debate is a clear account of the moral character of the problem. Given that the Bishops were intervening in a political matter, it is of course entirely understandable that they would focus on issues of health and social policy, for these can appeal to those who do not share our religious and ethical commitments. Nevertheless, now that legalization is a reality, the Church needs to work at explaining its teaching on the immorality of recreational drug use. On this topic there has been an unfortunate pastoral void.

If one turns to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic it is, uncharacteristically, unhelpful. At CCC 2290 it advises that temperance requires us to avoid every excess with respect to food, alcohol, medicine, etc. It also notes that endangering others through speeding or drunk driving is a grave wrong. In the next paragraph it speaks of drugs directly:

“2291 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.”

It is noteworthy that the Catechism also emphasizes the health risks of drug use. It explicitly condemns making and trafficking in drugs, yet it is silent about the recreational use of drugs beyond noting that they encourage people to practices against the moral law. This seems to leave open the question of whether this use is immoral in itself or just because it might lead one to do other evil things. With respect to the morality of recreational drugs we are left to extrapolate from a general admonition to avoid excess.

This is highly unsatisfactory. In contemporary discourse it is inadequate to simply lay down prohibitions or general sentiments. People rightful want to know not only whether the Church is opposed to recreational drug use or not, they want to know why. This is vital if the Church’s teaching is to be appropriated and applied in the life the faithful. Regardless of the state of the law in Canada, Canadian Catholics need to know how they should act in light of the new law. Does the legality of marijuana put it on the same level as cigarettes or alcohol, which can be morally used in moderation, or not?

In this respect it is helpful to turn to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas for guidance. Although he does not address the issue of marijuana, his arguments explaining why drunkenness is a sin are instructive and largely applicable to this topic. He notes that whether or not drunkenness is a sin depends upon the awareness and intention of the agent. If someone ends up drinking too much because the drink is stronger than expected for instance or through deception, as Noah was tricked, there is no sin. But, if it results from a deliberate and inordinate use of alcohol then it is sinful. (ST, II-II, q. 150, a.1, c.)

In discussing whether drunkenness is a mortal sin he goes into further detail. He mentions three cases. The person who gets drunk thinking the amount they are taking is moderate, but not knowing that the drink is intoxicating does not sin at all. The person who drinks something excessively, but is unaware it is intoxicating commits a venial sin. This is a kind of gluttony, drinking too much of something because I like the taste for instance when it unwittingly makes me drunk. Finally, there is the person who is aware that his drinking is immoderate and intoxicating, but would rather be drunk than sober. In this case, the person is a “drunkard” properly speaking and commits a mortal sin. (ST, II-II, q. 150, a.2, c.)

Why does Aquinas think that this kind of drunkenness is such a grave sin? He argues that it is a grave sin because it deprives us of the use of reason. This is wrong because it is through reason that we act virtuously and avoid sin. Consequently, getting drunk makes it likely that we will commit grave sins because we lose control of our reason, and to knowingly and willingly put ourselves in situations where we are likely to to do grave wrongs is itself gravely wrong.

While it is more fully worked out, Aquinas’ argument is similar to that of the Catechism, which noted that drug use encourages grave offences to the moral law. However, it seems to me that we should emphasize Aquinas’ insight that drunkenness undermines the use of reason more than he himself does. This is the fundamental point to be made about the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.

As Aristotle taught the very nature of our humanity is that we are rational animals. Accordingly, I would argue that drunkenness is wrong precisely because it destroys our ability to reason. Why is this wrong? I certainly agree with Aquinas and the Catechism that this loss of reason makes it likely that other irresponsible and gravely immoral actions will follow. But, irrespective of this, the intentional destruction of one’s own ability to reason is wrong even if somehow the person were able to ensure no other irresponsible action would take place.

In this respect, we can see why the recreational use of marijuana is both similar to and different from drinking alcohol. Unlike alcohol, it seems obvious that one cannot use marijuana and other illicit drugs in moderation. One can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or have a bottle of beer at the hockey game without getting drunk. One doesn’t typically smoke a joint without getting high. Accordingly, unlike alcohol marijuana cannot be used in moderation. This is, presumably, one of the reasons the two were treated differently under law for so long. On the other hand the immoderate use of alcohol is precisely the same as the use of marijuana in that both undermine one’s capacity to reason.

This is, in my view, the moral issue with the use of recreational drugs. To intentionally destroy one’s ability to reason is to attack one’s own humanity. It is to abandon the most noble and divine element of one’s life for the sake of pure escapism. It is to turn oneself, albeit temporarily, into a mere animal in order to avoid reality. If this isn’t gravely disordered action towards oneself, than it is hard to see what would be.

A healthy spirituality is one that promotes the physical, mental, and moral integrity of the human person. Acting reasonably is a necessary condition to attain any of these. Accordingly, the recreational use of marijuana remains gravely immoral for Catholics irrespective of its changed legal status.


6 thoughts on “Pot: Legal, but still Immoral

  1. Thank you for the guidance Dr. West!
    I would like to suggest two additional perspectives:
    a) We know for a long time now that smoking causes, among other conditions, lung cancer and that there is no safe amount that can be consumed. Therefore, smoking is an act of self-harm. Recent research also shows that what is thought to be ‘moderate’ alcohol use causes damage to the brain over time, and therefore also falls within the self-harm category.
    b) Alcohol is a psychoactive drug even at low concentrations (affects normal neurotransmitter balance). The question is also: In a context of ‘recreation’, is it morally acceptable to manipulate brain chemistry to experience pleasure (reward without merit), to achieve sedation (escape), cause stimulation, or induce pseudo-spiritual experiences through altered states of consciousness. If a drug could be designed that has neither negative health consequences nor impacts reasoning ability, nor induces physical addiction, we would still need to ask ourselves whether it is legitimate to do such things to ourselves. I do not see which virtue even such a ‘perfect’ drug cultivates.
    It is not in chemicals where we find joy, peace, zeal and revelation. Seeking it there is misplaced worship.


  2. And Jesus turned water to wine…
    Recreational use, I would think. I have observed people under the influence of cannibis for 50 years. In my humble opinion, the most noticeable impact of consuming larger portions made the person more groggy and sleepy. Other than laughing more, I honestly have never observed anyone making unreasonable choices while high especially when you consider the plethora of stupid things blamed on alcohol. I think the powers that be are being motivated by fear. Children are not likely to have more access than they had during prohibition, especially when the prices sky rocket. I think Catholic adults should make their own moral judgments on cannibis use like they choose whether to drink alcohol or choose to use birth control. If Jesus made wine I am sure he would not have objected to smoking weed. What is the church afraid of? Perhaps we should concentrate on the morality of discriminating against women and all the other unmentionable practices that we now suffer because of. Cannibis is such a tiny drop to be concerned about. Let’s work on reconciliation with Canada’s First People’s. Let’s allow women to follow the call to leadership. There are so many bigger issues than cannibis.


  3. How ironic that I should read your article this evening. I was just talking to my daughters about the use of drugs and that it is best avoided as it clouds judgement and dampens the intellect. How can you make good decisions when you can’t think properly? I suggested instead that they continue to seek deeply positive feelings and experiences through prayer, meditation, exercise and social interactions with their friends. All of these activities lead to greater health and long term happiness. I have noticed over the years that as my spiritual practice grew, my desire to drink alcohol has decreased significantly. As one moves closer to God, there is an inner peace achieved that cannot be duplicated through the use of alcohol and drugs. It is hope that my daughters understand this going forward. Great article.


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