Today across Canada cannabis has been legalized. No longer restricted to medicinal marijuana, purchasing, possessing and consuming cannabis for recreational use is now legal. A wide conversation has been underway in Canada, with medical, social, policy and practical concerns being raised. Not unexpectedly, in a secular society like Canada, theological matters are notably absent.
They are, however, not unimportant. This cultural moment requires a practical, Proverbs-like theological wisdom and discernment, one that acknowledges the complexity of the matter and confesses the reality of God’s Kingdom. We need, then, to avoid easy oversimplifications, like colouring cannabis in starkly black-and-white moral categories or framing it around license. This legal shift provides an opportunity for Christians to consider the matter theologically, thinking Christianly about their relationship to cannabis and their witness within our post-Christian society.
What follows below is a short cannabis catechism (you may recall that a catechism is a pedagogical tool, a format of exploration and education through questions and responses) – consider it a blunt confession of sorts (sorry, I’ll avoid further pot puns). In putting this together, I wanted to think through the matter with my own context in downtown Toronto, church community, and family (two teen children) in mind. Yet I also wanted to confess the Christian faith and what it brings to the table on this matter, helping form a distinctive, and hopefully wise, Christian witness.
It’s not intended to answer all questions, just those that came to me. Please add your own questions, further thoughts, and wisdom in the comments section.
Q What is a follower of Jesus to make of the matter of legalized cannabis in Canada?
The legal status of marijuana provides Christians a fine opportunity to consider their relationship to psychoactive substances like cannabis. However, it’s legal status does not mean its a social good or imply a holy permission. Gambling is legal, so is pornography, along with a host of other things a Christian rightly avoids. While a Christian honours the governments and laws of a given country, she also doesn’t take those laws as the high-water mark of holy living or social righteousness. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, a Christian is called to another ethic.
This makes a Christian alert to a larger vista, aware that what is happening is more than mere jurisprudence. Legalization is one face of a bigger cultural sweep that is, in effect, the legitimization of marijuana. It would be naive to ignore other realities at play in this moment, say, the powerful economic forces behind the commercialization of cannabis (and the anticipated tax windfall for governments) or the profit and market dynamics that will seek to increase cannabis usage by current users and also increase the market of new users.
Q So what is a Christian’s relationship to all things cannabis?
Complex, nuanced, aiming to be congruent with reality, and hopefully wise.
Like the wider cultural conversation, a Christian seeks out medical, sociological, judicial, economic, and scientific lines of sight into the matter of legal pot. For example, a Christian cares about matters of justice and might urge pardons for those with criminal records for previous marijuana possessions. They value science and take note when the Canadian Medical Association urges a greater caution due to the significant physical and mental health risks, addictions and dependencies, and adverse effects associated with the use of cannabis. They seek protection for the young and vulnerable, and are troubled by data from places like Colorado where use among 12-17 year olds has increased during legalization.
Q So would that mean a Christian stands opposed to all things cannabis?
No. A Christian’s relationship to cannabis will be multi-dimensional, and in some cases could discern a response to affirm and bless. For example, a Christian is moved by compassion for the plight and needs of hurting people. Part of a Christian’s relationship to marijuana is to understand that some individuals suffering from terminal illness or chronic disease may find relief with cannabis, and so encourage medically regulated access to medicinal cannabis.
A Christian also affirms the goodness of all created things. The marijuana plant is part of this created world that is declared good by God. As stewards of creation we remain open to discerning and cultivating the benefits of cannabis. This is always a difficult matter of discernment because a created good can easily be distorted and misdirected in its use, as can happen, for instance, with alcohol.
Q Glad that you raised the matter of alcohol because many Christians are quite fine with alcohol. Isn’t marijuana in a similar category? Would a Christian approach to legal pot be similar to alcohol then?
There are both similarities and dissimilarities with alcohol. The bible has a “yes-and-no” perspective on alcohol, recognizing its capacity to “gladden the heart,” seeing in it a sign of God’s Kingdom joy and gladness. In fact, Jesus himself turned water into wine, making more alcohol available to extend a wedding celebration.
Yet while affirming alcohol, Scripture stands decidedly against drunkenness, acknowledging the harmful effects and disastrous decisions that flow from intoxication. Humans are made as image-bearers of God, created to wisely steward and soberly reign over all creation. Impairment through substances compromises our agency as image-bearers of God, inhibiting our responsibility and capacity to contribute to the wider common good.
One of the benefits this current cannabis cultural moment provides the imbibing Christian is the opportunity to reconsider their relationship to alcohol. Have we reacted to a prior legalistic prohibitions towards alcohol by rushing off to happy hour and uncritically lifting up one too many glasses?
It is important to consider the biblical distinction between an affirmation of alcohol as a created good and its misuse in drunkenness as a moral wrong – here is where a dissimilarity takes shape. While a person can enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail and not get drunk, marijuana’s general efficacy is impairment. While those effects do vary, the primary and intended outcome of cannabis consumption is a psychotropic “high” of altered mental state and perception. At minimum, it’s significant to note that the culture surrounding marijuana in the West is one dedicated to attaining a high.
Q What does culture have to do with this?
Quite a bit. Take the biblical injunctions against drunkenness, which emerge in the context of a bacchanalian Roman culture. The practices and behaviours involving alcohol in that culture shaped a lifestyle out of sync with what it means to be an image-bearer of God. The gospel witness was to human flourishing through the practice of self-control.
Part of the needed wisdom today is to consider our context and current cultural moment. How is pot understood and celebrated in our Western culture? Legalization is a culturally legitimating act, so what is being legitimized under the statutes of legalization? Cannabis, as celebrated and practiced in the West, is seen as an escape, a disengaged tuning out of the difficulties of life. And it is often marked by an immature shiftlessness or idleness (I don’t need to list the stoner movies, do I?). The gospel certainly directs a Christian away from the life and practices of such a culture.
We do well to ask why our culture is so vigorously embracing recreational marijuana? What is the enthusiasm behind gummy edibles or THC drinks that make the high of cannabis even more readily accessible and acceptable to wider audiences? What is it that our culture is drawn to? What existential void or spiritual vacuum is our culture seeking to fill with the altered-state experiences of cannabis?
Q But don’t Christians have great freedom in these matters?
Yes – the one set free by the Son is free indeed. Christians are free to consume cannabis where it is legal. In fact, the gospel tells us that the need for food laws or prohibitions about what is right to eat or drink indicate a weakness of faith. The gospel’s scandalous sweep of freedom declares that all things are permitted; yet the gospel’s accompanying wisdom asks insistently about the direction and use of that freedom, declaring that not all things are beneficial. Christian freedom is is not unfettered liberty but always in service of God and neighbour.
Reflecting on such freedom, any question about a Christian’s relationship to cannabis consumption must be: “How does this benefit my neighbour, physically and spiritually?”
Q But isn’t marijuana consumption a harmless activity that doesn’t affect anyone else?
No – we are social beings with lives that are profoundly inter-connected. But especially not for a Christian. We are not our own but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has set us free from sin, restoring our humanity as image-bearers of God, and set us free to wholeheartedly live for him.
That means in all things a Christian regularly wonders: “how will this help me live as an image-bearer of God, as a disciple of Jesus Christ?” How might the fruit of the Spirit be cultivated and used for my neighbours good? To put it another way, does cannabis help me to better love and serve God and my neighbour? How might cannabis use influence my teen-aged neighbour who struggles with a lousy self-image, anxiety, and the burden of peer-pressure? How might my free use of cannabis harm those prone or vulnerable to substance dependencies, or those who feel stripped of dignity and already inclined to seek any form of solace to numb their pain? Wouldn’t they be better served by working hard to improve the poverty, unemployment, anxiety, dysfunction and loneliness that afflicts instead of offering a cheap substitute solace?
The big question for a Christian is, does cannabis use promote engaged, responsible and compassionate neighbour love? In that light, the answer to not use cannabis comes clear.
Q So what might a Christian witness look like in a cannabis age?
A Christian witness in this cultural moment – where Christians are pushed further to the margins of post-Christian culture – will look very much like it has in previous eras and cultures: peculiar. It will be to live as a counter-cultural community of disciplined freedom, patient neighbour love for a broken world, and hopeful obedience to God. It will offer to all the substitute cannabis consolations a compelling reality of human flourishing in a disciplined and joyful alternative community under the Lord of all things – including cannabis – Jesus Christ.