Marijuana: From Gateway to Gatekeeper

Rev. Saeed Richardson Marijuana Legalization, Protestant Perspectives, Reflections

“Closed, Forbidden to Enter” Photo credit Marco Michelini

On March 15, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions shared with reporters in Richmond, VA that he was, “astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana.” He concluded that the ultimate responsibility for our country was to declare that “using drugs will destroy your life.”

An article published in March by the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal presents evidence to the contrary. The study found a 23% reduction of opioid-related hospitalizations after nine states passed legislation enabling the use of medical marijuana. Additionally, overall opioid-specific overdoses were reduced by 13%.

This study was not the first to suggest the linkage between legalization of marijuana as medicine and positive impacts on opioid use. In January of this year, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine presented findings from an independent panel of medical experts, offering conclusive evidence of marijuana’s capacity to effective treat chronic pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea and spasticity. They also found no evidence of any cannabis overdose deaths.

A study released in the July 2016 issue of Health Affairs Journal found that from 2010 – 2013, doctors in states with legalized medical cannabis prescribed 1,800 fewer painkillers once a medical marijuana law was implemented, resulting in reductions in Medicare spending by $165 million per year.

In 2002 the British Journal of Addiction provided a comprehensive analysis of the “gateway effect” and concluded that an individual’s tendencies and environmental circumstances, not marijuana, offered the explanation for the transition to harder drugs.

Nearly all reports and studies suggest a decline in overdoses deaths due to individuals selecting Cannibis over opioids as a treatment for chronic pain. They overwhelmingly point to the need for more research – a task often hampered by marijuana’s Schedule 1 status. All call to question the claim of marijuana as a gateway drug leading to usage of harder substances.

Attorney General Sessions is not alone in his assertion of gateway drug ideology. It would be safe to suggest that many faith communities across the nation – conservative and progressive – have varying views on the issue. And regarding the issue of whether drug usage qualifies as sin, many progressive voices alongside conservative voices, answer yes.

As a pastor and one who intentionally exercises all facets of life through my Christian faith, I am committed to faith traditions, religious declarations, and scriptural interpretations that fundamentally frame the way I engage life in this world — including how I view the use of illicit substances. Furthermore, ministering on the South Side of Chicago, weekly I witness the adverse effects our communities suffer – theft, violence, and health difficulties – from those who are addicted to illegal substances. These also inform my ethical and moral arguments regarding drug use.

What, then, happens when the empirical meets the ethical? Stated another way, how do religious leaders, like me, and the faith communities we serve respond when those ideals we hold as religiously sovereign suddenly clash with new revelations in science and medicine? Do we ignore or cast off the empirical data as immaterial? Do we return to our holy texts and try to discover new meanings and revelations? Do we forge scientific studies affirmed by our religious positions?

We first confess that we’ve been here before. While we may take these norms for granted, if we rewind the wheel of time, we may recall several instances in which new empirical data forged in secularism clashed with the ethical values of religion. When geography confirmed that the world was round, not flat, people of faith experienced this clash. When humanity discovered the earth revolved around the sun, not vice-versa, we experienced the clash. One might argue those ideas are far removed and distant.

More recently, religious institutions clashed over prohibition and concluded that the consumption of alcohol was not inherently evil. (Yes, Jesus changed the water into real, fermented wine). In the fields of psychology and physiology, we’ve learned that mental and psychological health are not simply concerns relegated to the spiritual domain. They are physically real, data-informed, empirically evidenced fields that exist in concert with the underpinnings of our faith. Regarding marijuana, could we be again at a moment where our theological concerns are facing-off with those concerns of science and medicine?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 15,000 died from an opioid-related overdose in 2015. Their data further shows that zero cases have yet to be linked to overdoses for marijuana. As stated previously, we now have substantial evidence suggesting that marijuana serves as a critical intervention against opioid overdose. Perhaps it’s time for those of us with conservative underpinnings to take seriously the empirical data surrounding marijuana usage and grant ourselves permission to wrestle these concerns through our faith. Instead of being a gateway drug, if marijuana is the gatekeeper that can prevent thousands of opioid users from dying every year and potentially set them on the path to sobriety, then our faith deserves the challenge.