EVERY YEAR around the 20th of April, the press is infiltrated with a surge of pot-related stories, complete with as many tongue-in-cheek headlines as editors will allow. This year’s coverage was somehow different, mostly in that it didn’t evaporate into thin air (now even I’m doing it) after the “holiday.” Rather, it seems, the coverage around marijuana picked up steam over the week of April 20 and is carrying on even now, well into the summer.
One explanation is that in the midst of a recession, America is willing to consider hitting the pipe, toking the spliff, bonging the, um, bong. Mainstream politicians like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are actually considering the legalization of marijuana (though it won’t happen this year). Congressmen like Barney Frank from my home state of Massachusetts and Ron Paul from Texas are also on board. Reversing the Bush administration’s policy, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Federal law enforcement will not pursue medical marijuana users in California, where the drug is legalized for medicinal purposes.
American culture seems to have moved on a long time ago. References to marijuana use are so breezily tossed around that one might assume that the stigma related to this still illegal drug has gone the way of lava lamps. In the Christian world, weed legalization is mostly absent from the conversation, but there, the silent assumption about marijuana’s legality probably goes the other way.
But younger Christians might be a different story. In late April, the evangelical blog Burnside Writer’s Collective quizzed its young-ish readers on a series of pot-related questions. Should marijuana be legalized? Fifty percent of responders thought so, and the next largest percentage said it should at least be decriminalized. Have you ever smoked marijuana? Fifty percent said yes, 40 said no. The 10 percent in the middle respond, in uniquely young evangelical fashion, that they have smoked once or twice. (Doesn’t that just mean “Yes?”) Finally, an overwhelming majority claim that even if weed was legal, they still wouldn’t smoke it.
Like many other Western political dilemmas, Scripture doesn’t have an entry on cannabis—not even general statements on hallucinogens. Without the comfort of “the Bible tells me so,” it seems that Christians take an array of positions on their consumption, from “it’s awesome” to “it’s illegal” to “it’s witchcraft.” With so little on the subject in our texts, Christians must consider the same questions as any public official: would the legalization of marijuana be good for our economy? Would it be bad for the youth? Are the hurt it might cause drug cartels and the lessened burden on the penal system more convincing arguments than the claims that it is a gateway drug or will drastically increase drug use?
Perhaps the two most convincing arguments for marijuana legalization are the fiscal benefits of legalizing and taxing the sale of marijuana, and the impact that decriminalization would have on the overrun justice system. Just as the government slaps a tremendous tax on the sale of tobacco products (it’s over $5 in New York City), taxes on marijuana products could create a much-needed stream of income for all levels of government. Additionally, if marijuana use became legal, the resources, monetary and otherwise, spent on arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations of minor drug offenders could be redistributed to other, arguably more pressing endeavors.
Rather than admitting defeat in the never-ending War on Drugs, legalization could in many ways, be a means for the United States to score a major victory. The blow to drug dealers, gangs and cartels that are substantially fueled by illegal marijuana sales could be nearly incalculable and, again, the government could focus its energies on stopping the flow of harder drugs. Finally, by legalizing the production and sale of marijuana, the Federal Drug Administration and other government agencies would have the opportunity to regulate it, ensuring that users don’t become seriously ill due to tainted or laced pot.
For the time being, however, the seemingly more influential arguments are those in favor of marijuana’s continued illegality. Without a doubt, the most common argument against legalization is the assertion that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” The gateway drug theory postulates that those who use pot eventually find their way into other, more serious drugs. Though it is often pointed out that this is nearly impossible to measure, it still remains the most influential line of reasoning against marijuana use, both legally and illegaly. It is also argued that legalization would make it easier for children and teenagers, for whom the drug would presumably be illegal, to gain access to pot.
There is one other argument for legalization that may tip the scales: the fact that the marijuana’s illegality is a major inconsistency in government policy. Selling or smoking weed is a criminal offense, while alcohol and tobacco products are freely produced, sold and consumed by Americans. Sure, we need the FDA to regulate and restrict drugs that have been proven far more harmful than beneficial, but marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol when both are used in moderation, and when given the choice, I’d prefer to be around someone who smoked too much pot rather than drank too much. Of course people will abuse marijuana as they do alcohol, but we don’t accept that as an argument for prohibition.
No one should be surprised when, sooner rather than later, the real possibility of legal marijuana becomes even more ubiquitous in the news and in everyday conversations. Changes like this don’t come quickly, nor should they. The fact that this debate has been going on for decades and continues with no end in sight is not necessarily a bad thing. Let us consider all points of view and, in the end, make the choice that is best not only for our economy and government, but, indeed, for our citizens as well. With no easy answers in sight, perhaps this is what it means to work out our faith with fear and trembling. And you know what they say is good for calming that trembling don’t you …
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