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Prudence dictates church stance against legalizing recreational marijuana

By Joe Ruff 
The Catholic Spirit 

Marijuana in itself is not evil, but people can easily abuse it, so prudence, or good judgment, dictates it not be legalized for recreational use. 

That is the basic teaching of the Catholic Church when it comes to making pot legal. It comes into play particularly now in Minnesota, because last May the Democratic-controlled House voted 72-61 to pass HF 600, which among other things sets up a regulatory framework for people 21 and older to buy and sell weed. The second of this session’s two years opens Jan. 31, leaving plenty of time for the Republican-controlled Senate to hold hearings, debate, and vote on the bill. 

The legislation does not have the support of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which represents the public policy interests of the state’s bishops. The conference has argued that legalizing marijuana will widen its use, make it more available to people under 21, and increase dangers on the road from drivers impaired by the drug. 

“HF 600 is a bad bill,” Ryan Hamilton, MCC’s government relations associate, told the House Commerce, Finance, and Policy Committee Feb. 1. “This bill is bad for adolescents, bad for our brothers and sisters with substance abuse problems, bad for those that use our highways, and bad for the common good.” 

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, a spiritual director at The Seminaries of St. Paul in St. Paul and a moral theologian with a specialty in medical ethics, told The Catholic Spirit Sept. 16 that marijuana is not “intrinsically disordered,” or something that by its very nature is not right with God, such as the acts of abortion, euthanasia, and contraception. But “for most people, most of the time,” using marijuana is not a good idea, Msgr. Rohlfs said. With the best interests of individuals and society in mind, the church opposes its recreational use. That can be said for many drugs, including alcohol and prescription medicines, he said. 

“No drug out there is always and everywhere wrong, as a substance,” Msgr. Rohlfs said. “It’s part of God’s creation. It has some good to it. The church is opposed to recreational drugs as a prudential decision. For most people, most of the time, it is not a good idea. Whatever drug ‘X’ is. You can always give me a case it would be good for this person at this particular time. The problem is generalizing that.” 

Pope Francis has spoken strongly against recreational use of marijuana or other drugs, including a 2014 address to an International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome and 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. 

“Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem with drug use is not solved with drugs,” the pope said at the drug enforcement conference. “Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise.” 

Nor does legalization work on a practical level, the pope said. 

“Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects,” Pope Francis said. 

At World Youth Day, the pope proclaimed to the crowd that “the scourge of drug trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires society as a whole to act with courage,” adding that legalization would not yield “a reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction.” 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses drug use, as well, stating “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law” (2291). The Catechism also demands protection by the political community of the family against such threats to security and health as drugs, pornography, and alcoholism (2211). 

Father Chris Collins, vice president of mission at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a systematic theologian, or one who seeks to arrange religious truths in a consistent whole, emphasized the dignity of each human person and God’s plan for human flourishing. 

“Any abuse of a substance is not good for the person,” Father Collins said. “Every person should be weighing those considerations. Is this helping me be fully alive?” 

Social considerations include protecting the mental health of young people, including concerns about a sense of isolation and lack of desire to do meaningful work that recreational drugs can bring, he said. 

Father Collins acknowledged the need to discuss the issue of marijuana and the changing landscape as medical use of marijuana has come into play. 

“Medical marijuana has been seen as a potential good,” he said. “But the next step is recreational use? That is definitely more problematic.” 

Even as MCC speaks out strongly against recreational marijuana, the conference has been neutral on medical use of the drug, which has been legal in Minnesota since 2014. Not taking a stand one way or another is a nuanced position, Msgr. Rohlfs said. 

“People who oppose it [medical marijuana] will say this is a slippery slope. Which is right,” he said. “And if you deny it [medical marijuana], people will say, ‘You want this person to suffer.’ It just depends. It is a prudential decision. Would use of this medical marijuana be a prudent decision at this time? And the church doesn’t want to get into how you regulate that.”