Marijuana, Personal Freedom And American Culture

Jun 15th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In early May 2024, President Biden’s Justice Department began reviewing marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug, moving to reclassify it as a less dangerous Schedule III drug—on par with anabolic steroids and Tylenol with codeine—which would provide tax benefits and a financial boon to the pot industry.  This action merely reflects the national trend of accommodating American culture to the legalization of marijuana.  In 2014, for example, an editorial on the front page of the New York Times argued intensely for the legalization of marijuana and the removal of all penalties against the manufacturing and distribution of marijuana, let alone the possession of marijuana in its many forms.

Young people who smoked marijuana in the 1960s were seen as part of the counterculture. Now the cannabis culture is mainstream. Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal reports that a 2022 survey sponsored by the National Institutes of Health “found that 28.8% of Americans age 19 to 30 had used marijuana in the preceding 30 days—more than three times as many as smoked cigarettes. Among those 35 to 50, 17.3% had used weed in the previous month, versus 12.2% for cigarettes.” Today, 38 states and the nation’s capital have already legalized marijuana for medical reasons.  Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C. have legalized it for recreational use.

There are three premises used to justify the legalization of marijuana:  (1) It will stop governments from wasting money locking up people who have not really hurt anyone; (2) It will raise tax revenue: and (3) It will put criminals out of business.  In short, the argument goes, legalizing marijuana expands personal liberty and serves the interests of an expanding government.  And, therefore, it is no longer a source of political controversy; there have been no fiery Republican attacks on Biden reclassifying marijuana.

Columnist Ross Douthat argues that phenomenal shift is driven by “the same trend in American attitudes: the rise of a live-and-let live social libertinism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, [and] the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy.”  The end result is that (in the words of Douthat) they “grease the skids for exploitation, with a revenue-hungry state partnering with the private sector to profiteer off human weakness.  This is one reason previous societies made distinctions between liberty and license that we have become loath to draw—because what seems like a harmless pleasure to the comfortable can devastate the poor and weak.  Or else, with pot . . . no less than bread and circuses, it can simply distract their minds, dull their senses and make them easier to rule.”

America is embracing a damaging level of permissiveness all in the name of autonomous freedom and rights.  As we embrace marijuana in the name of personal liberty and the funding of expansive government, it is silly to think that personal liberty is really a compelling reason for marijuana’s legalization.  Common sense would seem to indicate it will actually produce greater personal enslavement.  Further, as the various states foster addictive behavior among its citizens, they will in effect be furthering state addiction to revenue from pot.  No matter how one views this set of developments, it is difficult to see all of this as a great advancement in civilization.

How should we think about this grand experiment in the expansion of personal liberty?  Several pieces of evidence indicate that this is not a wise decision for our culture.

  • First, in 2014 the late columnist Michael Gerson offered a poignant reminder:  “Pot is called harmless, though we really have little information on the health and cultural effects of the widespread legal distribution of modern, potent methods of consuming THC (the chemical name [for marijuana]).    We do know that the substance is addictive in about one in nine cases (more like one in six when use starts in the teens); that it can make structural changes in portions of the brain controlling emotion and motivation; and that regular use undermines memory, attention span, problem-solving skills and the ability to complete complex tasks.  What possible use could these attributes have in a modern economy?”  Furthermore, there is little doubt that an expanded legal market in pot also expands the illegal markets for reselling (or giving) it to children and teens.  As Gerson comments, “The social message of normalization, of banalization, is intended—and received by young people.”  Ironically, about $40 million of the tax revenue Colorado expects to receive will go for public school construction:  “What were once ‘drug-free school zones’ are becoming drug-funded schools.”  Our culture has reached a point where parents no longer expect much help from government in reinforcing the cultural, spiritual and ethical norms necessary to raising responsible, successful children.  Many states are actually actively undermining those very norms—and the marijuana panacea is a perfect example of just that.  As Gerson argues, “Rather than building social competence and capital, politicians increasingly benefit when citizens are addicted, exploited, impoverished and stoned.  And that deserves contempt, not applause.”
  • Second, according to Allysia Finley, Bertha Madras thinks the Biden decision is a colossal mistake. Ms. Madras, 81, is a psychobiology professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the foremost experts on marijuana. “It’s a political decision, not a scientific one,” she says. “And it’s a tragic one.” In 2024, that is a countercultural view.  Ms. Madras has spent 60 years studying drugs, starting with LSD when she was a graduate student at Allan Memorial Institute of Psychiatry, an affiliate of Montreal’s McGill University, in the 1960s. “I was interested in psychoactive drugs because I thought they could not only give us some insight into how the brain works, but also on how the brain undergoes dysfunction and disease states,” she says.  In 2015 the World Health Organization asked her to do a detailed review of cannabis and its medical uses. The 41-page report documented scant evidence of marijuana’s medicinal benefits and reams of research on its harms, from cognitive impairment and psychosis to car accidents.  She continued to study marijuana, including at the addiction neurobiology lab she directs at Mass General Brigham McLean Hospital.  Finley summarizes a conversation she had with Madras, which highlights the dangers of marijuana:


  1. For starters, she says, the “addiction potential of marijuana is as high or higher than some other drug,” especially for young people. About 30% of those who use cannabis have some degree of a use disorder. By comparison, only 13.5% of drinkers are estimated to be dependent on alcohol. Sure, alcohol can also cause harm if consumed in excess. But Ms. Madras sees several other distinctions.  One or two drinks will cause only mild inebriation, while “most people who use marijuana are using it to become intoxicated and to get high.” Academic outcomes and college completion rates for young people are much worse for those who use marijuana than for those who drink, though there’s a caveat: “It’s still a chicken and egg whether or not these kids are more susceptible to the effects of marijuana or they’re using marijuana for self-medication or what have you.”
  2. Marijuana and alcohol both interfere with driving, but with the former there are no medical “cutoff points” to determine whether it’s safe to get behind the wheel. As a result, prohibitions against driving under the influence are less likely to be enforced for people who are high. States where marijuana is legal have seen increases in car accidents.   One of the biggest differences between the two substances is how the body metabolizes them. A drink will clear your system within a couple of hours. “You may wake up after binge drinking in the morning with a headache, but the alcohol is gone.” By contrast, “marijuana just sits there and sits there and promotes brain adaptation.”
  3. There’s mounting evidence that cannabis can cause schizophrenia. A large-scale study last yearthat examined health histories of some 6.9 million Danes between 1972 and 2021 estimated that up to 30% of young men’s schizophrenia diagnoses could have been prevented had they not become dependent on pot. Marijuana is worse in this regard than many drugs usually perceived as more dangerous. “Users of other potent recreational drugs develop chronic psychosis at much lower rates,” Ms. Madras says. When healthy volunteers in research experiments are given THC—as has been done in 15 studies—they develop transient symptoms of psychosis. “And if you treat them with an antipsychotic drug such as haloperidol, those symptoms will go away.”
  4. “Marijuana has also been associated with violent behavior, including in a study published [in May] in the International Journal of Drug Policy.Data from observational studies are inadequate to demonstrate causal relationships, but Ms. Madras says that the link between marijuana and schizophrenia fits all six criteria that scientists use to determine causality, including the strength of the association and its consistency.”
  5. “Another cause for concern, she notes, is that more pregnant women are using pot, which has been linked to increased preterm deliveries, admissions of newborns into neonatal intensive care units, lower birth weights and smaller head circumferences. THC crosses the placenta and mimics molecules that our bodies naturally produce that regulate brain development.”
  6. What about medicinal benefits? Ms. Madras says she has reviewed “every single case of therapeutic indication for marijuana—and there are over 100 now that people have claimed—and I frankly found that the only one that came close to having some evidence from randomized controlled trials was the neuropathic pain studies.” That’s “a very specific type of pain, which involves damage to nerve endings like in diabetes or where there’s poor blood supply,” she explains.   For other types of pain, and for all other conditions, there is no strong evidence from high-quality randomized trials to support its use. When researchers did a “challenge test on normal people where they induce pain and tried to see whether or not marijuana reduces the pain, it was ineffective.”   Ms. Madras sees parallels between the marketing of pot now and of opioids a few decades ago. “The benefits have been exaggerated, the risks have been minimized, and skeptics in the scientific community have been ignored,” she says. “The playbook is always to say it’s safe and effective and nonaddictive in people.”

As with alcohol, marijuana use, where legal, is a matter of Christian freedom.  But in exercising the freedom to use marijuana where legal, former Christianity Today executive editor, Andy Crouch, offers wise counsel:  “The Christian’s freedom is a gift that leads to serving others, with care, attention, skill, and singleness of heart.  It’s a freedom that willingly sacrifices easy pleasures in order to serve.  And by that standard, it’s hard to imagine that pot will be helpful any time soon.”

Christian freedom, further, is always exercised within a cultural context where there is a community with values, practices and mores.  In North America, how does marijuana function?  Crouch writes correctly that “[Pot] is associated with superficially pleasant disengagement from the world.  It connotes a kind of indolence and ‘tuning out’ that is not an option for people who want to become agents of compassion and neighbor love, not to mention its association with all kinds of immaturity.”  In addition, one must consider that marijuana creates a temptation “to depend on substances to numb the pain of lives robbed of dignity and meaningful work.”

The marijuana plant is part of the world that our God created and He has declared it to be good.  We have a stewardship responsibility before Him to be wise in how we utilize our role as creative cultivators with our God.  He is the sovereign; we are His dominion stewards.  As His image bearers, what we do and the choices we make must always foster a deeper relationship with Him.  As Paul declared, our freedom should lead to choices that are profitable, edifying and bring Him glory.  Crouch writes that “Image bearing invites us to deeper capacities and competence. .  .  Is marijuana a cultivated celebration of the created world, one that enhances and sharpens image bearing in all its dimensions?  Or does it merely substitute for the consolations and comforts of life lived truly and honestly before God and other people?”  For Christians who are free in Christ to make this choice, that choice seems obvious.

Furthermore, in a broader sense, it is time that government asks a related question when it comes to legitimizing marijuana:  “Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture?  What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage?  [David Brooks argues] that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.  In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”  Responsible freedom is not only a mark of mature Christianity; it is a mark of sensible government.

Legalizing widespread recreational use of marijuana is a panacea now gripping American culture.  Among other things, it is viewed as a proper expansion of human freedom to pursue the goals of the autonomous citizen.  However, I believe rather confidently that this expansion of freedom will actually enhance cultural decadence and dysfunction.  It is not advancement in the human condition.

See Allysia Finley, “What You Aren’t Hearing About Marijuana’s Health Effects” in the Wall Street Journal (10 May 2024); Jess Bidgood in the New York Times (7 May 2024); Alex Berenson in the New York Times (5 January 2019); Andy Crouch’s brief essay in Christianity Today (March 2014), p. 22; David Brooks in the New York Times (2 January 2014); Ross Douthat in the New York Times (3 and 5 November 2013); Michael Gerson in (16 July 2014); and The Economist (12 July 2014), pp. 25-26.

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