Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Marijuana is becoming more socially acceptable and legally available. It would seem that a majority of Americans are in favor of decriminalizing the recreational use of pot, and the Department of Justice has advised federal prosecutors that possession of a small amount of it is not an “enforcement priority.” Those of us not opposed to a stiff drink will have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why condemn joints when we’re okay with single malt scotch? Should the Church step in where parents and politicians are pulling out?

Once limited to the black market, cannabis now has the seal of medical approval in many states. It’s come over the pharmaceutical counter and is poised to take a leap onto the supermarket shelves. At that point, consumerism will kick in and drive morality out. After all, in an age of taurine supplements, memory enhancers, wheatgrass juice, personal cappuccino machines, and colonic irrigations, most Americans find it hard to pass judgment on how others use their purchasing power to manage their stress. When peace of mind becomes a pleasure cheaply bought, the moral high ground is hard to find.

Of course, there are reasons other than marketing hype to be concerned about marijuana. We have come so far as a society with the regulation of tobacco that it seems like a step backward, and a blow to America’s lungs, to encourage anyone to smoke anything else. Yet smokeless marijuana takes care of that complaint. If Christians can drink beer in a smoke-free sports bar, why can’t they smokelessly vaporize marijuana in an art deco lounge?

And there is no need to worry about supporting drug lords if the weed is grown by local organic farmers and sold by taxpaying licensed retailers at hipster-approved farmer’s markets. Consumers will still worry about the health effects of marijuana, with its 400-plus known compounds, eighty of which are unique to the cannabis plant, but I suspect that the media will not excoriate hash brownies and space cakes as long as they do not contain any trans fats.

For the most part, pot is pointless, and that, of course, is its allure. Getting high is an extreme sport for couch potatoes who want to turn the passing of time into a mental obstacle course. When many Christians are actively involved in physically dangerous sports that push their bodies to the brink of injury or even death, why should some Christians be condemned if they stretch their perceptions in ways that make them want to run as fast as possible to the nearest box of cereal?

The answer, of course, is that what is good for most people should not be good enough for even one Christian. Christians are supposed to hold their bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit, to spiritual standards that transcend the medical or social consensus. For most Christians, it just seems obvious that smoking pot, as opposed, for example, to smoking cigars, is an inarguably un-Christian thing to do.

Context is crucial. Tobacco has deep roots in American history as a staple of the economy, and cigars, rather than cigarettes, continue, in some circles, to be a cultural icon of sophistication. Picture a group of men (and, increasingly, women) lighting cigars, and you are likely to imagine a smokescreen obscuring chatter about stock tips and golf scores. Picture a group of pot smokers and you will come up with teenagers trying to plumb the depths of Ayn Rand or Hermann Hesse.

Yet perception, as pot smokers will remind you, is not necessarily reality, and stereotypes are not a good basis for moral judgment. Today’s typical consumer of cannabis is likely to be a stockbroker, golfer, or sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis, not a pimply kid skipping shop class. Besides, when the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians to avoid licentiousness, debauchery, and carousing (Gal. 5:19–20), that behavior is more descriptive of any bar on a Saturday night than of a couple of teenagers firing up while listening to their parents’ old LP collection.

Don’t we all have a drug of choice, and, if so, who can be the first to throw a stone at a stoner? Hypocrisy is a worry in these discussions. But thoughtful condemnations of marijuana are not necessarily hypocritical, even when the critics swallow serotonin enhancers or sip scotch. The issue is ­complicated, although that has not stopped the Catholic Church from taking a simple and hard line. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Taking drugs is . . . always illicit because it involves an unjustified and irrational renunciation of thinking, willing and acting as free persons.” The pope is referring, of course, to psychoactive substances taken for their stimulating thrill, not laboratory-tested compounds prescribed for therapeutic reasons and administered under the care of a doctor. So much for serotonin, but where does that leave scotch? If martinis are on the same moral level as marijuana, then the war against pot is truly a ­losing cause.

Alcohol might not be a drug in the ordinary use of that word, but it is still the world’s most harmfully abused substance. The Catholic Church has spoken out about alcohol abuse, of course, but has never supported the outright ban of alcohol. In the nineteenth century, for example, Catholic temperance groups ­advocated for more self-control, not blanket prohibition. The Catholic Church is committed to the proposition that alcohol, even though it is more toxic and addictive than marijuana, should not be put in the same moral class with even the softest drugs.

After all, even the most biblically literalist Protestants have to agree that the Bible, which frequently condemns drunkenness, nowhere ­condemns alcohol as such. The reason, from the Catholic perspective, is that alcohol has legitimate purposes that other drugs do not. In fact, the Bible treats alcohol as a positive good, a medicine that turns poisonous only when it is abused. One of Solomon’s proverbs, for example, warns against letting rulers drink, lest they forget their responsibilities and “pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Prov. 31:5), but it goes on to recommend giving “strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress” (Prov. 31:6) so that they can forget their poverty and misery.

The easiest way to make the case that it is acceptable to give a drink to someone in a state of anguish but imperative to deny them a hit is to argue that you can drink without getting drunk, while one toke and you are, if the stuff is any good, euphoric. In other words, alcohol can be used for what the ancients called “sober inebriation,” but the whole point of marijuana is to move immediately from one state of consciousness to another.

There is some truth to this contrast. Beer geeks waxing voluble about the aromatic pleasures of various dry-hopping techniques can sound a lot like potheads marveling over the latest cannabis strains, but there is an important sense in which alcohol is more “natural” than marijuana. That sounds paradoxical, given that beer, wine, and spirits are the product of human ingenuity and careful production while marijuana grows like the weed it is, but in small doses, alcohol is heart-healthy while smoking is always bad for the lungs. A glass of wine aids in digestion, while a toke makes many people feel suddenly hungry, no matter how full their stomachs.

Further evidence of its naturalness is the fact that alcohol appeals to the tongue in a way that marijuana does not really appeal to the nose. Pleasant flavor is an inherent aspect of wine, beer, or whisky, while even those who do not find the aroma of marijuana unpleasant hardly treat the smell as intrinsic to its consumption. You can enjoy the bouquet of a wine without drinking one drop, just as you can enjoy a cigar without inhaling, while smelling marijuana smoke is not something you do apart from inhaling it. True, alcohol can be separated from its taste and smell, but adding rectified spirits to a syrupy fruit punch is an abuse of alcohol in a way that putting THC in brownies is not an abuse of marijuana. These differences suggest that alcohol, which requires a much more elaborate production process than does pot, is actually more of a part of the natural order of our lives.

Alcohol is also more “­naturally” a part of our moral lives than marijuana. Indeed, what most sets alcohol apart from marijuana is its greater range for both good and bad. By lowering inhibitions, it can overshoot the good of human company, but the socializing it promotes is still a basic human necessity. Getting high, by comparison, is not so much anti­social as it is indifferent to the good that comes from being social. Marijuana plays with time and space in ways that make conversations amusing but rarely memorable or constructive. That is why most pot stories are pretty predictable and end up sounding like inside jokes. Marijuana is fun when it is shared, but it creates a collective narcissism that leaves those inside the group unable to explain themselves, and even uninterested in doing so.

The moral seriousness of alcohol helps explain why getting stoned is a subject more suited for ­movies than novels. It is fun to laugh at stoners but less enjoyable to contemplate the ­insides of their minds. ­Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano uses inebriation as a lens through which to examine the lucidity of self-­destruction. We witness in the consul’s drunkenness the towering collapse of a great mind that has nothing more to think about than its own most certain defeat. A novel that focuses on a hero who is high for three-quarters of its pages would be a comedy, not a tragedy. Marijuana promises more good than it delivers because, in part, it is not even able to provoke much evil.

Weed endangers the soul by deceiving the mind in ways significantly different than whisky does. That difference helps explain why marijuana appeals especially to young people, given that their sense of reality is still in flux. As social conditions change, however, so do our pleasures. The gaming of sense perceptions is a natural extension of modernity’s abandonment of moral absolutes and America’s embrace of entertainment at all costs. Marijuana is to the information age what alcohol was to the ages of agriculture and industry. It will only become more popular as our culture increasingly depicts reality as less objective.

If the problem with drinking is that it can lead to false intimacy, the problem with dope is that it can lead to a false sense of transcendence. All drugs involve spiritual cheating. They promise liberation from external pressures by immersing the user in the immanence of sense perception unbound from ordinary restraints. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel, if only for a moment, that the weight of the world can be lightened by levity. Marijuana, however, seduces users with the possibility that foolishness can be secretly serious. Getting high is a parody of faith, opening a portal to a false peace that discredits rather than exceeds all ­understanding.  

Stephen H. Webb is author of Dylan Redeemed and The Divine Voice and is currently working on The Cross and the Singing Bowl: A Christian Pilgrimage into the Healing Properties of Sound.

Image by Pix4free licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.