Cannabis SativaMarijuana.  Cannabis.  Weed.  Pot.  This plant of infamy is now permitted for recreational use in two states, and either approved for medicinal uses and/or decriminalized in 24 others.  Two states will decide this Fall whether they too will legalize marijuana.  What is a Catholic to do?

It Used to be so Simple

Back when marijuana’s status was defined solely by the federal government’s Schedule I classification, the question of moral use of marijuana was fairly straightforward: It’s illegal, and it’s illegality is not contrary to human dignity; so, don’t use it.  Today, we must pay a little more mind, especially as the Magisterium of the Church has not specifically addressed this issue.1

Some Believe the Church has Spoken

Before getting into the question of whether a Catholic can morally use marijuana in a recreational capacity, the groundwork must be laid.  In this effort, it is worthwhile to consider what others have argued, and where their arguments failed.

I have heard many people begin by appealing to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. §2291

This is the “Drugs BAD!” argument.  It could be presented thus:

Drugs are bad—the CCC says so.
Marijuana is a drug.
Therefore, marijuana is bad, and it’s use is sinful.

I cannot deny premise #1, but that second one is on shaky ground, if it isn’t dead in the water.

What constitutes calling a substance a “drug”?  Massive can of worms, that question!  Regarding the concept that the authors of the CCC had in mind, what can be said about it.  Caffeine and alcohol were not included, and both have a long history of being approved for consumption by the Church.  Yet both are psychotropic substances—that is, they are known to affect a person’s mental state.  There is no denying that mood-altering alcohol has tremendous potential to be abused.

What Does the Doctor Say?

This brings us to the “Argument from Aquinas.”  This position appeals to the Angelic Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, and his analysis of the human person.  It has recently been advanced by the venerable Dr. Taylor Marshall.  If I may summarize:

Man’s greatest faculty is his intellect; it is the principal attribute for which man is said to be made in God’s image.
Intoxication, AKA drunkenness, is sinful because it substantially impairs one’s intellect.
Marijuana substantially impairs one’s intellect, which makes it a means of intoxication.
Therefore, marijuana use is sinful.

This time around, that third premise is most troubling.  Does alcohol consumption result in intoxication?  Obviously, that depends, which is why the Church and Scripture do not prohibit alcohol consumption altogether.  The potential exists for intoxication, but whether alcohol’s potential for intoxicating effects is actualized is dependent upon the actions of moral agents.  You and I decide when to consume and how much.

Now, does marijuana intoxicate?  Does it intoxicate absolutely?  Are its intoxicating effects conditional?  The answers to these questions matter.  The trouble is, the answers are nearly impossible to ascertain with any appreciable degree of certainty.  Why?  Because, as I mentioned above, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I “drug” since 1970.  Consequently, not one clinical trial, not even with rats, has been conducted in the United States in over 44 years.  We have only anecdotal evidence upon which to base answers to our questions.

Even more than the problem of the lack of data due to marijuana’s status as a “controlled substance” is the fact that marijuana is anything but “controlled.”  There exist three different species of cannabis, and each individual plant yields a different product according to its age and growing conditions.  Thus, when we speak about the psychotropic effects of marijuana, we are speaking generally about a group of substances with incredible variety.  The potency and ratio of cannabinoids in any given yield are neither controlled nor established prior to sale or use.

Therefore, at this point in time, the incredibly rational Thomas Aquinas might advocate for 1) erring on the side of caution, 2) discretion and great moderation in use, and/or 3) declassifying marijuana, so that it might be properly studied and propagated in a manner amenable to standardization.  The one thing that certainly is not yet demonstrated is that marijuana, universally, is intoxicating in all instances and all doses.  The question we must, but cannot yet, answer is, Can marijuana’s effects be minor enough to reasonably compare it to alcohol?  Until we can answer that, recreational use of cannabis cannot be universally condemned.2

What’s the Point?

The Church is never opposed to reason.  She is not opposed to science—quite the contrary.  The desire of the rational mind is for knowledge and understanding, and that is precisely what we lack in the discussion about marijuana.  Anecdotal evidence never suffices.  Studies that involve only a handful of people are scientifically irrelevant, and they cannot properly bear the label of clinical trial.  So, the Church has no reason to say anything new.  The bishops are equally as ignorant as the scientific community.  It is wise to exercise caution, but it is also naive to feign understanding.

  1. The Church has, of course, condemned substance abuse and the illegal activities around marijuana production and trafficking, but that is not equivalent to condemning all recreational use. 
  2. I am not advocating for the legalization of marijuana. I am advocating for rational dialogue and the opportunity for proper research to be conducted, especially for the sake of those who might benefit from cannabis’s potential medicinal uses. 

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.