Wholly Healthy: The Question of Marijuana

There’s a lot of media coverage of marijuana these days. Across the land, marijuana laws are being revisited, and its use is being steadily decriminalized. In many places medical use is allowed, while in Colorado recreational use is legal. So how should Christians deal with this issue?

First, with knowledge. Researchers have found that humans have in their bodies a system of endocannabinoids, chemicals like those in marijuana, with appropriate receptors. These chemicals are involved in many things: immunity, craving, bone growth, anxiety, metabolism, pain and pleasure. Using the drug marijuana seems to mimic some of that activity, though to what extent, and for better or worse, we just don’t know for certain.

Particularly because it is considered natural, marijuana is touted by many as a drug that’s just “no big deal.” After all, users are usually, though not always, calm and relaxed. I admit that in my 20 years as an emergency physician, I’ve had to wrestle a lot of drunks, but almost never have I had to fight or restrain someone using only marijuana. However, it isn’t that simple. For example, marijuana may play a role in unmasking underlying psychotic disorders in people who have the tendency. That is, if your family has a history of schizophrenia, marijuana might allow you to manifest that mental illness. And there are other concerns with marijuana use. Some evidence suggests that marijuana can lower IQ in developing teenage brains and can have negative effects on memory and decision-making.

Is marijuana a gateway drug? That is, does its use lead people to other, more dangerous drugs? The research isn’t conclusive. Some studies say yes, while advocates for marijuana (of course) say no. However, it is dangerous enough on its own, as fatal car crashes involving marijuana have tripled in the last decade, and the combination of alcohol and marijuana is even more perilous.

There are other concerns. The concentration of the active chemical in marijuana is believed to be increasing. So we may be entering new, uncharted territory in terms of physical and emotional effects. Marijuana is believed to reduce fertility, whether used by men or women. And while the cancer link has been weak, it isn’t zero; more research will be necessary in that area as well.

I understand the arguments — that criminalization of marijuana is expensive, and that its use is often victimless. And to the extent that minorities suffer inordinately from the laws, it’s certainly unfair. But for now, it remains illegal at the federal level. And medically, to this physician, the risks are either too great or too uncertain for anyone to simply say that it’s “no big deal.”

But an important question remains regarding marijuana. What need is the drug filling for users? What pain is it easing — physical, psychological or spiritual? What trouble is it soothing? If we answer those questions, then maybe we can reduce its use by not only understanding the physiology of the natural chemicals in our bodies, but by helping users fill their personal voids and ease their pain — with Christ, not chemicals.

It’s all too easy to condemn. But we’re called to compassion. And nowhere is it more necessary than in dealing with — and loving — those who use illicit drugs.