Author’s note: OnePeterFive, through Dr. Peter Kwasniewski (listed as the author of this post –ed.), was given permission by R. Jared Staudt, writer of The Beer Option, and the book’s publisher to share with readers the full text (without supporting footnotes) of the chapter entitled “Beer vs. Marijuana.” The book itself, which is highly recommended, is about all aspects of beer: its long history, its connection with monasteries, the craft brew movement, and its role in a healthy Catholic lifestyle. Given the relentless propaganda for legalizing “recreational” marijuana, it seemed most opportune to present this text for a wider readership, so that Catholics can understand the issue for themselves, and argue more effectively with others.
When I first gave a talk on beer and Catholic culture, I was surprised by the number of questions and comments related to drugs. I guess I should not have been, because I was in Colorado. In 2012, when I voted against Amendment 64, which sought to legalize marijuana in Colorado, I laughed off the ballot measure, thinking it would not have a chance of passing. Since then, I have been disturbed by what’s been happening in Colorado, as well as throughout the country. In fact, the legalization of marijuana stands as one link in a chain of cultural changes, all reflecting a withdrawal from reality, a breaking down of boundaries and natural limits, and a retreat from personal and social responsibility.
Dr. Vince Fortanasce, an internationally renowned Alzheimer’s researcher, has bemoaned the fact that Catholics have pretty much accepted the rise of marijuana in our country without a fight. Although he acknowledges that we need more research, he points out that there has been enough to conclusively point to marijuana’s dangerous impact on the brain, especially for adolescents and young adults. The moderate consumption of alcohol has a strong place in the Catholic tradition, and Catholics need to be able to distinguish this practice from the use of a drug. We should not equate it with the recreational use of marijuana.
Is Beer a Drug?
G.K. Chesterton makes an important point regarding the extremes of excess and defect when it comes to drinking: “The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink.” Those who push back against a Catholic critique of drugs claim that drugs are made from natural substances and thus, like alcohol, can be seen as the fruit of God’s creation. What is the difference in the enjoyment derived from them?, they ask. The need to answer this question now presses urgently upon us as the acceptance of drugs grows in our country.
The first distinction we need to make to reply to this objection comes from recognizing that beer and wine are foodstuffs. They come not just from natural substances (uranium is a natural substance), but from substances used for normal human consumption. Like the components from which they are made, beer and wine are naturally healthy and should be consumed as part of an overall healthy diet. As a foodstuff, Aquinas defends the consumption of alcohol as permitted within the Gospel’s lifting of the prohibition against normal food and drink: “No meat or drink, considered in itself, is unlawful, according to Matthew 15:11, ‘not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.’” Though already considered “clean” in the Old Covenant, beer and wine would pass the muster set forth in Matthew’s Gospel. Other natural substances, including plants used to produce drugs, would not pass this test; they are not foodstuffs and intrinsically harm the body. Many people claim that both caffeine and alcohol are drugs because they alter the body and the functioning of the brain. If we followed this logic, we would have to admit that just about everything we consume is a drug, because all food and drink impact the body and brain in some way. If we look at the differences among caffeine, alcohol, and drugs, we can draw some distinctions:
Caffeine does not impair normal brain functioning.
Alcohol in moderate use does not impair normal brain functioning, but immoderate use does.
Drugs in ordinary use impair normal brain functioning.
By “ordinary use of drugs,” I mean that people use drugs, including marijuana, specifically to get high. I admit that it is possible to use drugs in a moderate way if small amounts are consumed, but this falls outside ordinary usage and would apply only to a small number of cases, compared to the large number of people who ordinarily use alcohol in moderation. Some components of drugs are used in pharmaceuticals, but we have discovered serious problems when these drugs are overused or abused. If we consider the moderate consumption of alcohol to be a usage of drugs, then we are equivocating. Drugs, as the word usually connotes, are substances that engender a feeling of being high, in a withdrawal from ordinary experience and consciousness. Anything we ingest alters us, but normally our food and drink do so in accord with our good, in harmony with the good of our rationality.
Barley and grapes, along with water, are the main ingredients of beer and wine, respectively. These are foods, which are part of a normal diet, and the fermentation process does not fundamentally alter their nutrition. There is nothing intrinsically harmful in the chemical composition of beer and wine, including alcohol, except at higher dosages. In fact, the moderate use of alcohol has many health benefits, which have been confirmed by many scientific studies. Rod Phillips summarizes these findings: “All other variables being constant, moderate alcohol consumption is a healthier option than abstaining from alcohol.” Some of the particular benefits from the regular and moderate consumption of beer include better bone health, improved cholesterol, decreased stress, reduced risk of type-2 diabetes, and a healthy dose of fiber and vitamins. Even St. Paul confirmed the healthfulness of alcohol: “Stop drinking only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23).
The Catholic tradition affirms the moderate use of alcohol, with the support of divine revelation itself! Now that drugs are becoming more and more widespread, it is time for Catholics to mark the clear difference between alcohol and drugs. Drugs demand a negative response, as they do not promote the human good, neither individually nor culturally. They offer anesthesia, a way to escape from a sick culture. But this sick culture desperately needs us to face it and transform it, to fill the black hole of God’s absence.
Gisela Kreglinger, in her book The Spirituality of Wine, notes that the rise of drugs has accompanied the decline of religious belief and practices. She points out that a decline in faith precludes the socialization and rituals surrounding alcohol that Christianity offers. She claims that it is less likely for alcohol to be abused and for people to resort to drugs when children are taught “the proper benedictions for food and drink,” “drinking as an act of communion,” and “drunkenness as profanity.” These religious practices show the communal and religious context for drinking and link alcohol to the family and sacred meal. Alcohol becomes a normal and at times sacred element of life, not an individual revolt against family, society, and God.
Rod Phillips has speculated that a decline in drinking among young people, which at first may seem positive, may indicate a shift toward drug use. The chemical differences alone between barley and grapes and the makeup of the cannabis plant reveal a problem with this shift. Tetrahydrocannabinol, abbreviated as THC, is the main psychoactive chemical found in the cannabis plant. Cannabis has eighty unique chemicals, which can be contrasted with the much simpler chemical makeup of alcoholic drinks, particularly when we contrast THC with ethanol. The plant’s flower buds, when dried, are used to smoke as marijuana; the resin of the plant is used to make hashish, which can be smoked or made into an extract oil. Significantly, THC levels in marijuana have risen from about 1 percent to between 20 and 30 percent in the last fifty years.
THC primarily affects the brain: euphoria, calmness, anxiety, paranoia, distorted sense of time, magical or random thinking, short-term memory loss, depression, distorted perceptions, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory. It also has many physical effects, such as greater carcinogenic harm than smoking cigarettes. Unlike consuming a foodstuff in moderation, the consumption of cannabis immediately affects the functioning of the brain, an effect compounded over time, especially for adolescents. In fact, marijuana usage can permanently alter the brain, leading to a great risk of psychosis, psychological problems, and lower I.Q. scores. Further, one of the most frightening discoveries shows that consuming marijuana alters DNA, creating harmful mutations that will be passed down to children and future generations. One doctor studying this phenomenon, Dr. Stuart Reece, concluded “that cancers and illnesses were likely caused by cell mutations resulting from cannabis properties having a chemical interaction with a person’s DNA.” Smoking pot can have permanent health effects — and not just for the individual user.
For these and similar reasons, the Vatican’s pastoral handbook on drugs claims that to speak of marijuana as a soft drug “is a pure illusion” and cautions against marijuana’s trivialization. It also affirms that “cannabis is not an ordinary substance.” Beer is an ordinary substance, even if it can be abused. Writing on the differences between marijuana and alcohol, Roger Scruton notes that “obviously there are significant medical and physiological differences. Alcohol is rapidly expelled from the system and is addictive only in large doses — at least to those … whose genetic make-up has been influenced by the millennia of winemaking.” Furthermore, “the effects of cannabis remain for days, and it is both more addictive and more radical, leading not just to temporary alterations of the mind but to permanent or semi-permanent transformations of personality, and in particular to a widely observed loss of moral sense.” The moderate use of alcohol, however, promotes health and friendship and, as we have seen, finds divine sanction for its role in Christian worship.
The Intrinsic Problem of Marijuana and Other Drugs: Escape from Reality and Reason
Drugs represent one, and possibly the most pronounced, attempt to escape from reality, acting as an anesthetic against one’s problems. The growing role of drugs reminds me of the use of “soma” in Huxley’s Brave New World: “[I don’t understand] why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.” Accepting drugs represents an important step toward the dystopia Huxley saw emerging in the world. Ultimately, drugs offer a spiritual dystopia, one that seeks to eliminate the Gospel’s daily call to take up one’s Cross, deny oneself, and to follow Christ. They lead us away from the reality that “it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Drugs cover over our tribulations, seeking an escape hatch from our difficulties, though they generally create even more of them.
Drugs stand at the heart of modern disillusionment with life. At the heart of this crisis lies the lack of a central unifying force for our culture. We have lost a sense of purpose and lack the inspiration needed to work hard in the messiness of reality. Ultimately, drug use reflects our spiritual crisis, as Pope Benedict describes:
The new forms of slavery to drugs and the lack of hope into which so many people fall can be explained not only in sociological and psychological terms but also in essentially spiritual terms. The emptiness in which the soul feels abandoned, despite the availability of countless therapies for body and psyche, leads to suffering. There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.
To resign ourselves to a culture that accepts and embraces drugs caves into a position of spiritual despair, raising up an impediment that stops us from offering a more compelling vision through evangelization.
Alcohol, when abused, certainly provides a similar false escape from personal problems. It does not, however, deceive us by offering the possibility of entering some higher realm or false world. Both alcoholism and marijuana addiction isolates users, leading them to withdraw from the social setting set by fraternal drinking. Beer as a work of culture can be ordered toward the building up of culture, unlike drugs. Creating beer as the fruit of culture is an unlocking or perfecting of God’s creation — a perfecting that He intended by making us rational beings. Drugs lead us into a dead end, a satanic turn inward in rebellion against God and man. They lack beer’s ability to promote human flourishing by integrating into a communal life and even holiness.
In order to evaluate the morality of drugs, we must return to Aquinas’s teaching on drunkenness. Aquinas speaks of sobriety as needed for drinks “which by reason of [their] volatility [are] liable to disturb the brain (caput).” We need to drink rationally, respecting the good of our nature and our end. Aquinas teaches us that virtue disposes us to the perfection of our nature. Vice, on the other hand, does the opposite: “Now man derives his species from his rational soul: and consequently whatever is contrary to the order of reason is, properly speaking, contrary to the nature of man, as man.” Consequently, Aquinas defines sin as something contrary to right reason. This does not deny, but includes, the fact that sin ultimately contradicts the will of God, because God created the good of nature and His commands lead us to our own flourishing and happiness.
Aquinas’s description of drunkenness provides a foundation for understanding why drugs harm human life and culture. Unlike alcohol, they are not consumed moderately, but intrinsically involve surrendering full possession of reason. They provide a retreat from a rational and responsible confrontation with reality. Pope Benedict stated it even more strongly by arguing that they also represent an escape from the reality of the spiritual life that God presents to us: “The patient and humble adventure of asceticism, which, in small steps of ascent, comes closer to the descending God, is replaced by magical power, the magical key of drugs — the ethical and religious path is replaced by technology. Drugs are the pseudo-mysticism of a world that does not believe yet cannot get rid of the soul’s yearning for paradise.” Here we see drugs specifically as a distorted attempt to respond to our rational and religious nature, but in a way that ultimately undermines them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes a different angle on drugs, demonstrating how they violate the commands of God, specifically the Fifth Commandment. It emphasizes the harm that drugs inflict on us, the basic threat they pose to human life: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law” (§2291). The Catechism also implicates those who facilitate and encourage drug use.
Ironically, drugs first became legal in the United States under the rubric of health (with medical marijuana in California in 1996) and have quickly become legal in many states for recreational use as well. Recent statistics show that medical marijuana use in Colorado has decreased, while recreational use has increased. The Catechism notes that drugs can be used for therapeutic reasons, but the need to alleviate pain must balance with the effects that such therapy has on the soul. The right use of reason and one’s spiritual health trump physical concerns. In this light, consideration should be given to other options for care that respect our rational nature and support it, rather than work against it.
Culture should draw us together as we work to pursue the common good. This requires the proper formation of the faculty of reason (which should occur in education) and the exercise of that reason in service to others. Just as drug use provides a retreat from personal problems, it also provides a retreat from a common culture. Drugs stand as a “no” to common goods and self-transcendence and offer a retreat into oneself. Pope Benedict once again provides illumination: “The anti-culture of death, which finds expression for example in drug use, is thus countered by an unselfish love which shows itself to be a culture of life by the very willingness to ‘lose itself’ (cf. Lk. 17:33 et passim) for others.” The contrast is between a culture of death, where individuals selfishly withdraw from others, putting their feelings and pleasure first, and a culture of life that encourages the sacrifice of oneself for others.
Consequences of Marijuana Legalization
Defenders of legalized marijuana claim that it is safe and healthy and benefits our country by taking pressure off law enforcement (although the crime rate has risen in Colorado). This argument fits with our general understanding of freedom: let individuals make their own choices, especially if they are not harming anyone else. The embrace of this radicalized understanding of freedom, however, has come with a cost to both the individual and society. We can see already that legalized pot seriously damages health and presents a moral and physical danger to society.
Pope Francis responded to the growing trend toward legalization as follows:
Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs! Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise. … Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called “recreational drugs,” are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects. … Here I would reaffirm what I have stated on another occasion: No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that.
The question from a Catholic point of view really comes down to whether or not drugs promote the human good. If they do, they can be drawn into the life of virtue; if they do not, they are rather a part of vice and sin that undermine our lives.
When discussing the consequences of legalization, we must focus on the common good rather than on the importance of individual choice. The transfer of drug use from a strong subculture into American mainstream culture will affect the entire nation. Aquinas explains how this is so. Today, we understand law’s purpose as securing personal rights. But Aquinas explains that law is meant to lead the individual beyond the self to an exterior and shared good: “The proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good.” Whatever the law legitimates comes to be seen as good. This has happened in our country with contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and redefining marriage. While it is unfortunately true that some immoral things have to be tolerated, this cannot be used as an excuse to permit things that undermine goodness and happiness on a fundamental level. If drugs attack the faculty that leads to happiness, our reason, then there are legitimate grounds to think they will threaten the maintenance of society and consequently hurt others. We have to ask what kind of citizen we want in our country. Our laws should reflect that ideal, although we do not generally have a shared ideal of citizenship today.
We have already seen a number of damaging effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado. The Denver Post noted that legalizing marijuana immediately encouraged some Coloradans to rethink their position on pot and to try it for the first time because it became “easy, convenient and legal.” By legalizing marijuana, states are saying they no longer see it as fundamentally detrimental to human life and society. But despite marijuana’s growing acceptance, there has been a documented rise in health and social problems. Following the legalization of marijuana, Colorado formed a Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee, which released a report on January 30, 2015. The committee found a general increase in health problems: “In general, there were large increases in poison center calls, hospitalizations, and emergency department visits observed after medical marijuana was commercialized in 2010 and additional increases after retail (recreational) marijuana was legalized in 2014.” The increase in hospitalizations applies to children as well, as Colorado noted that one in six children entering the hospital for lung issues had been exposed to marijuana.
Although defenders of legal pot claim there has not been an increase in youth consumption, schools have dealt with a sharp increase in marijuana-related problems:
An investigation … shows drug violations reported by Colorado’s K-12 schools have increased 45 percent in the past four years, even as the combined number of all other violations has fallen. … The investigation found an increase in high school drug violations of 71 percent since legalization. School suspensions for drugs increased 45 percent. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found Colorado ranks first in the country for marijuana use among teens, scoring well above the national average.