Marijuana dangers can't be ignored, critics say

Tags: Marijuana

EDITOR'S NOTE: This Sunday, March 22, is Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The growing support for legalizing marijuana among Americans and their lawmakers remains unwise but not unexpected, Southern Baptist ethicists say.

Marijuana's inroads have been demonstrated already in March by a new public opinion poll that shows for the first time a majority in the United States favors legalization of the drug. In addition, Democratic and Republican senators introduced this month for the first time a bill to lift the federal ban on medicinal use of marijuana.

These developments follow the accelerating legalization of marijuana during the last two decades. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, beginning with California in 1996. D.C. and four of those states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington -- also have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Fifteen states -- 10 with legalized medical marijuana and five without -- have eliminated jail time for possessing small amounts of the drug, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

MPP, a leading promoter of marijuana legalization, is seeking to end bans on the drug in 12 more states by 2019. It is campaigning to gain approval of legalized marijuana initiatives in five states next year.

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Substances in that classification are considered to have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Schedule I consists of "the most dangerous drugs" and have the potential for "severe psychological or physical dependence," the DEA says. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Schedule I status for marijuana -- and a continuing ban on even its medicinal use -- is warranted, said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"Those who classified it as a Schedule I drug understood just how dangerous it is," Duke told Baptist Press in written comments. "To ignore this danger for the sake of those who might be helped is to likely unleash its destructive power well beyond any possible medicinal value it might have."

The evidence of marijuana's harmful effects includes its status as the most prevalent drug involved in criminal activity, Duke said. In addition, more teenagers enroll in addiction treatment with a principal diagnosis of marijuana dependence than all other illegal substances put together, he said.

"We are not acting responsibly to these kinds of realities or to the clear devastation this drug is causing if we make access to it easier," Duke told BP. "Easier access to marijuana is bound to lead to more widespread use of it for recreational purposes, with all the attendant problems, including addiction, personal problems and family breakdown."

Americans "would be better served if Congress retained the Schedule I classification and simply instructed the appropriate government entities to conduct studies to assess the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana," he said. "Until such studies have been conducted and the benefits are seen to clearly outweigh all the known negative effects, we should continue to make access to marijuana more difficult, not less so.

Southern Baptists continue to demonstrate concern about the harmful effects of drug use on their denominational calendar. This Sunday, March 22, is Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

Some members of Congress already are seeking to remove marijuana from its Schedule I classification. On March 10, Sen. Cory Booker, D.-N.J., introduced a bill, S. 683, that would move the drug to Schedule II, thereby declaring it has accepted medical value. It also would repeal federal penalties for medical marijuana and allow Veterans Administration physicians to prescribe the drug for veterans with serious illnesses. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is the lead Republican co-sponsor. In February, Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced two bills to legalize marijuana.

President Obama commented on marijuana in an interview released March 16 by VICE News, an international, alternative media organization. Asserting criminalization's impact on some communities and the cost to states, Obama said, "At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana." However, he tells people decriminalization is "not a panacea," Obama said.

"I appreciate the president's recognition that decriminalizing marijuana does not solve our nation's drug problem," Duke said. "Indeed, decriminalization will lead to more drug problems because more people will use the drug.

"Our government should resume its efforts to discourage drug use, not encourage its decriminalization."

The General Social Survey (GSS) -- a highly regarded, bi-annual public opinion poll -- found Americans' barrier-breaking support for legalization of marijuana in research conducted last year. Released March 4, the survey found 52 percent of respondents favored legalization, 42 percent were opposed, and seven percent were undecided, The Washington Post reported. Support for legalization jumped nine points from the last GSS survey in 2012.

Americans' increasing support for legal marijuana "should not surprise us," said C. Ben Mitchell, provost and professor of moral philosophy at Union University, a Southern Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. "We are living in the shadow of the 1960s cultural revolution whose motto was 'satisfy every desire.' Most Americans embrace that motto today."

The changing landscape on marijuana legalization will present challenges for churches, Mitchell said.

"Unfortunately, churches in those states where marijuana is legal will increasingly have to help individuals, families and communities repair the shattered lives created by the drug," he told BP in a written statement. "Make no mistake about it, marijuana use will leave personal and social scars.

"The good news is that the gospel of Jesus changes what people love," Mitchell said. "The Holy Spirit enables individuals to forgo the love of an artificial high for the sake of a relationship with the risen Messiah. Smokers of pot can repent and become followers of Christ."

Southern Baptist and other evangelical Christian churches in Colorado are among those that face the challenges to and opportunities for ministry.

Colorado's voters approved legalizing and regulating marijuana for recreational use by passing an amendment to the state constitution in the November 2012 election. The first of more than 300 stores to sell the drug -- including in such products as cookies and candy -- opened in January 2014.

Not all Colorado cities have approved the sale of marijuana. The city council of Colorado Springs has prohibited retail marijuana stores, but its smaller neighbor, Manitou Springs, has allowed a store to operate. Denver, meanwhile, has nearly 100 stores.

The impact of marijuana's legalization is difficult to measure after barely a year, said Mike Routt, lead pastor of Circle Drive Baptist Church in Colorado Springs.

Despite the lack of data, he can say "churches must now be more proactive in warning members, especially the youth of the church, of the dangers of recreational marijuana," Routt told BP in written comments. "Churches must also be prophetic from the pulpit, addressing the issues of recreational marijuana in the communities where they are located."

Routt, chairman of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, expects recreational marijuana's legalization to spread to other states as a result of "the growing secularization of our culture and the marginalization of the Judeo-Christian ethic." Efforts to oppose legalization "will become increasingly difficult" and result in escalating criticism, he said.

"As Southern Baptists and other evangelicals continue to condemn the sale and also use of recreational marijuana, secularists will look toward us with disdain, attack us as being irrelevant, criticize us for our failure to see the benefits to communities reaped from taxes from marijuana retail stores and assail us for our refusal to embrace what secular culture endorses," Routt told BP.

"Yet, Southern Baptists and evangelicals understand that followers of Jesus are counter-cultural," he said. "Our beliefs are not based on constitutional law, but are founded on certain and unchanging truths of the inerrant Word of God."

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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