In cities and suburbs across the country, recreational marijuana shops are mushrooming in strip malls and commercial downtown districts.
An adult can walk into one of those stores and legally purchase several different varieties of marijuana and edibles such as cookies and brownies, all formulated to get the consumer high.
No harmless indulgence
“It’s a pursuit of pleasure that has nothing to do with God. It’s a purely hedonistic experience that one is searching for,” said Dr. Jeff Berger, the medical director for Guest House, a rehabilitation center in Michigan for priests who suffer from alcoholism and other addictions.
Berger, who is also a member of the Catholic Medical Association, has been treating addicts for 34 years. Marijuana, he warned, is not the harmless substance that pro-cannabis advocates have been claiming it is in their drive to legalize pot in the states.
“Seventeen percent of those who begin marijuana use in adolescence will become addicted to the drug,” Berger said. “And of those who are daily users, 25 to 50 percent of those will become addicted to the drug.”
Those statistics are backed by a 2014 study in The New England Journal of Medicine which also found evidence that frequent marijuana use is linked to cognitive impairment and an average IQ drop of about ten points.
“Interestingly enough, there is a diminished life satisfaction achievement,” Berger said. “People who were queried after several years of marijuana use are more likely to have dropped out of school, generally have lower incomes, and are more likely to be on welfare and unemployed.”
Steve Bozza, a moral theologian and bioethicist who serves as the director of Family Ministries for the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, said the research also indicates that marijuana, despite assertions to the contrary, does serve for many people as a gateway drug to harder narcotics such as heroin and cocaine.
“It’s not harmless,” said Bozza, who also recently co-authored an article with Berger on the morality of municipalities creating “safe injection sites” where addicts can obtain clean needles to shoot up heroin.
In recent years, at least 10 states, including the District of Columbia, have legalized recreational marijuana, while 33 states allow for medical marijuana.
Under-realized dangers – health and moral
Pro-cannabis advocates, who are well-funded and well-organized, have used several arguments to convince state legislatures and voters in referendums to legalize recreational marijuana. In addition to arguing that prohibition has failed to stop people from smoking weed and has led to countless nonviolent offenders to be imprisoned, advocates say marijuana is a harmless drug that is no more dangerous than caffeine or alcohol.
Not true, said Berger and Bozza.
“You can use alcohol without becoming intoxicated,” Berger said. “But the whole purpose of using marijuana is to get intoxicated. That’s a critical difference.”
“The only reason why someone smokes marijuana is to get high,” Bozza added. “That changes the whole dynamic.”
There is no defined, specific Catholic teaching on cannabis. But Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Church documents condemn drunkenness and recreational drug use that impair the mind and body. The Catechism describes the use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, as a grave offense (#2291)
With those principles in mind, the nation’s Catholic bishops have frequently spoken out against marijuana-related ballot measures in the states.
“When you’re high on drugs, you lose autonomy. You lose your ability to make proper decisions based on reason and freedom of choice. It puts you in slavery,” said Bozza, adding that smoking marijuana to get high is contrary to human dignity
“Therefore, we have moral issues with that,” Bozza said.
High potential for abuse, addiction
The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with other drugs such as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. That classification indicates the federal government considers marijuana to have a high potential for abuse.
“If you’re smoking cannabis regularly, you’re likely to have withdrawals when you stop,” Berger said. “Some of the symptoms might be irritability, aggression, anger, restlessness, and insomnia. The more marijuana you’ve been smoking, the worse the withdrawal symptoms are going to be.”
While marijuana is composed of more than 80 chemical compounds, THC is the chemical that creates the euphoria, “the high,” while also at times inducing hallucinations and delusions. Berger said THC is the chemical in marijuana that causes addiction.
“When they think of marijuana, a lot of older people think of the pot from the 1960s and 1970s,” said Berger, who added that the marijuana of decades past had a THC level of about 4 percent. Marijuana today has a THC level around 30 percent.
“It is much more potent now,” Berger said.
That potency may explain the evidence of modern marijuana’s addictive quality. A 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 4.3 million Americans have “marijuana dependence.” Many of those respondents were adolescents
Other studies found that slightly more than a third of American high school seniors in 2013 reported using marijuana. The 2014 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that roughly 17 percent of teenagers who smoke pot regularly become addicted.
“The disease of addiction is deadly and produces significant suffering or death to the individual and the individual’s loved ones,” Berger said. “The studies are very clear that not only is marijuana addictive in and of itself, but desensitizes the brain to more harmful substances.”
On the medical front, marijuana contains a chemical known as cannabidiol, also known as CBD, that appears to have therapeutic qualities that can be used to treat a variety of maladies to include bipolar disorder and epilepsy, while also relieving nausea in chemotherapy patients.
However, Berger warned that the data on medical marijuana is still not yet complete.
No FDA regulations
“If this were a drug being approved through the regular system, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would require some additional proof that the negative effects of regular marijuana use were not happening,” Berger said, adding that there are also concerns about how regular use of medical marijuana may affect pregnant women and their unborn children.
“With medical marijuana, there are no FDA regulations,” Berger said. “You don’t know how pure it is. You don’t know what the potency is. You don’t know whether pesticides were applied to it. You don’t know if anything else was added to it.”
Threshold of epidemic
Berger said the evidence also shows marijuana addiction is linked to higher risks of impaired short-term memory, difficulty retaining information, and impaired coordination that interferes with driving skills, which increases the risk of injury and death.
The push to legalize marijuana is occurring while hundreds of thousands of Americans across socioeconomic lines are overdosing and dying from opioids like heroin and fentanyl. Just as the national opioid crisis is ravaging communities across the country, Berger is concerned that another public health disaster is brewing.
“At this point,” Berger said, “We are at the beginning of an epidemic.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.