Marijuana is becoming legal and is now the fastest growing industry in the U.S., at the same time as research is demonstrating marijuana’s serious dangers

A June 2014 article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), written by researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health, points out that marijuana is not the harmless drug that many imagine. Rather, it is associated with “substantial adverse effects, some of which have been determined with a high level of confidence.” These negative outcomes include the risk of addiction, symptoms of chronic bronchitis, an elevated incidence of fatal and non-fatal motor vehicle accidents, and diminished lifetime achievement and school performance in cases of long-term use, especially beginning in adolescence.

We can add that the decision to use a drug recreationally for the purposes of dissociating ourselves from reality through induced euphoria raises significant moral concerns and, like all unethical human choices, can be expected to correlate with significant adverse ramifications.

Alcohol poses a risk of addiction for some people, and the responsible use of alcohol may become nearly impossible for them. Marijuana, despite some contentious debates about the matter, similarly has a significant addictive potential.

Despite these issues, the use of marijuana is growing and now the majority of Americans believe it should be legal for adults over 21 years of age. Currently four states—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and an additional sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug.

In Colorado, Maggie’s Farm Marijuana, for example, operates seven retail locations. Statewide, more than 300 recreational dispensaries have been licensed, earning $288 million in sales and $37 million in tax revenues in 2014. A rival company, Mindful, runs a 44,000 square-foot factory producing 500 pounds of marijuana per month, according to a report on “60 Minutes,” which aired in January 2015.

Part of the unethical character of drug abuse flows from the fact that we are treating something good, namely our normal personal experience as if it were an evil to be avoided. Recreational drug users seek to escape or otherwise suppress their lived consciousness and, instead, pursue chemically altered states of mind or drug-induced pseudo-experiences. Anytime we act in such a way that we treat something objectively good as an evil by acting directly against it, we act in a disordered and immoral manner.

Similarly, the decision to pursue inebriation and drunkenness is a choice directed against the good of human conscious experience, which raises serious moral concerns. The responsible enjoyment of alcohol, meanwhile, presupposes that a moderate use of the “fruit of the vine” can aid us in the pursuit of certain aspects of friendship and interaction by stimulating conversation with others and by diminishing the hesitations people might have when interacting with each other. The moderate use of alcohol also appears to offer positive physiological effects on health. The notion of the “responsible enjoyment of marijuana and other mind-altering drugs,” meanwhile, is a dubious concept, given that the more powerful and varied neurological effects of these substances readily take us across a line into alternate states of mind, detachment from reality, “getting stoned” and so on.

Retail marijuana outlets display wide arrays of marijuana candy products for sale. Cannabis can be chewed, eaten, sipped or smoked. This packaging appeals not just to adults but powerfully to teens and children. The legal age for purchasing recreational marijuana is 21 in Colorado and other states, but this societal affirmation encourages use among the young.

Whenever we look at alcohol, marijuana or more powerful drugs, additional moral concerns arise due to the risk of addiction, which threatens authentic freedom and constitutes a serious form of human bondage. Alcohol, of course, poses a risk of addiction for some people, and the responsible use of alcohol might become nearly impossible for them, necessitating complete abstinence to maintain their freedom. Marijuana, despite some contentious debates about the matter, similarly has a significant addictive potential, as noted in the NEJM article:

“Approximately 9 percent of those who experiment with marijuana will become addicted… . The number goes up to about 1 in 6 among those who start using marijuana as teenagers and to 25 to 50 percent among those who smoke marijuana daily. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 2.7 million people 12 years of age and older met the DSM-IV criteria for dependence on marijuana, and 5.1 million people met the criteria for dependence on any illicit drug (8.6 million met the criteria for dependence on alcohol)… . Indeed, early and regular marijuana use predicts an increased risk of marijuana addiction, which in turn predicts an increased risk of the use of other illicit drugs.”

The NEJM article also notes that adults who smoke marijuana regularly during adolescence have decreased neural connectivity (abnormal brain development and fewer fibers) in specific brain regions. Although some experts have disputed a cause-effect relationship for this phenomenon, studies of brain development in animals strongly suggest a causal effect. The authors surmise that the effects of marijuana on brain development might help explain the association between frequent marijuana use among adolescents and significant declines in IQ, as well as poor academic performance and an increased risk of dropping out of school. These deleterious effects speak to us of the fundamentally unethical character of inhaling, injecting or otherwise ingesting harmful chemical substances into our bodies.

The Other Addiction

Sales of legal marijuana grew 74 percent to $2.7 billion in 2014, according to a report by The ArcView Group, a cannabis industry investment and research firm. Marijuana is now the fastest growing industry in the U.S. The report predicts that “full legalization of marijuana nationwide would result in $36.8 billion in retail sales, larger than the $33.1 billion U.S. organic foods market.” This translates into billions of dollars in state revenues. In Washington, for example, taxes account for 75 percent of marijuana’s retail price—before sales tax. Pot farms are becoming large operations and there is no shortage of investors eager to reap huge profits. While marijuana users court a substantial risk of addiction, many business interests and legislators are embracing economic dependence, which might be more difficult to kick.

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk authors a column, “Making Sense of Bioethics,” is nationally syndicated in the U.S. in numerous diocesan newspapers. His articles are often reprinted in newspapers in England, Canada, Poland and Australia. “Reality Optional” is based on a 2014 column in “Making Sense of Bioethics.”

The Final Revolution?

The “Spirit of ’76” is one of dozens of marijuana strains for sale at retail outlets in Colorado. Whatever “spirit” users experience is certainly not what inspired the American Revolution. Perhaps the infectious spirit of the “Enter a Higher State” state was best articulated in 1961 by Aldous Huxley in a talk at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center:

There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, set in dystopian London, was published in 1932. Thirty years later in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, Huxley said the novel was an exercise in thinking about non-violent methods of control. “In the past, we can say that all revolutions have essentially aimed at changing the environment in order to change the individual. Today we are faced, I think, with the approach … where man can act directly on the mind-body of his fellows.”