It is good news that Connecticut may become the first state to legalize marijuana through the action of state legislators rather than by ballot initiative. On the morning of March 7, a new state coalition– Regulate Connecticut — held a press conference to launch a campaign to tax and regulate marijuana there. The Public Health Committee of the Connecticut House then held over 14 hours of hearings.
In the press conference, I made the case that legalizing marijuana can, and should, be made on religious, not just secular grounds. This is not immediately obvious. It requires a closer look.
Legalizing marijuana can happen in three ways. Medical marijuana is the first. Most clergy I know “get this.” Making cannabis available as medicine is an act of compassion and mercy. It brings relief from suffering. This is now legal in 28 states.
Decriminalization is the second. It reduces low-level use to a civil offense, like a traffic ticket, not a criminal one. This means that individuals, most often African Americans and Hispanics, cannot be arrested for low-level possession. Because so many clergy have read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, we respond quickly to this as well. We know it is wrong to put someone in jail, branding them literally for life, with a criminal record, for marijuana possession. Marijuana is either decriminalized or legal in 21 states.
But where marijuana has been decriminalized, what about this third way — legalization? What religious values are at stake here? Is it about anything more than marijuana itself? Why should clergy take this on as a matter of faith?
The main answer is so obvious that we can easily miss it: using marijuana is not wrong. Doing so is not immoral. There is no reason for law enforcement to be part of the picture, even in the form of a traffic ticket. It is only because of the tragic and misguided War on Drugs in this country over the past 45 years that a debate over marijuana hangs on today.
Abuse, of course, is wrong, as it is for any other drug or behavior that can hurt us. But using the law to punish someone for an act that in itself is not wrong or immoral itself constitutes immoral behavior. To think otherwise is to endorse a “culture of punishment.” As clergy, we should say “enough”. That’s not what we believe.
The sponsoring legislators in Connecticut provided a Top Ten List on why taxing and regulating marijuana are sound public policy. It guides us to the second question people of faith should ask. Given the reality of drugs in our society, and that drug use itself is not intrinsically wrong, how best do we protect health and safety, especially for our youth?
The Top Ten List underscores that regulating marijuana calls for testing of the product, labeling, and instructions explaining its use. This means that our youth will be less likely to use adulterated and dangerous marijuana, sold to them in back alleys. Regulation matters. It protects us.
Opponents point out that heavy use of marijuana by those under 21, and sometimes older, can damage the developing brain. They are correct. This is a critical concern. But the question is not whether this is true. It is. The key question how best to prevent it. Regulation helps.
Finally, as clergy we should ask what our faith tells us about how to persuade, how to best reach hearts and minds. We do so through honesty and truth. These are religious values. The Top Ten List points this out: “honest education like we have for tobacco and alcohol are much more effective in reducing youth use than fear-mongering that comes along with prohibition.”
Drug use is not intrinsically immoral. Concern for health and safety through regulation, combined with honest and effective education, are the best response to the reality of drug use. These are religious values. Legalization is the policy that serves them best.