Movements to legalize marijuana are spreading across the country, changing laws and causing millions of Americans to reassess their convictions. With pot’s popularity on the rise, what should Christians say in response? Todd Miles, professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, tackles this complicated question in Cannabis and the Christian: What the Bible Says about Marijuana. Pastor and writer Nathaniel Williams spoke with Miles about the relevant moral principles and medical facts.
Why did you write a book about marijuana?
This is a pastoral issue that my church has faced. I am on the elder board, and shortly after marijuana was legalized in Washington State, one of our congregants asked, “Is marijuana okay?” We realized at that point that the typical answer—“No, it’s against the law”—would no longer suffice. We knew we had to start thinking about the topic like Christians for a change.
I put together some thoughts and presented them at a pastor’s conference, and the room was packed. This experience showed me that the church was really looking for wisdom and guidance.
Since then, I’ve given this presentation all over the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and I’ve also developed a talk on medical marijuana. In some people’s minds, the issues surrounding recreational and medical marijuana are basically the same. But others distinguish between them, and that’s the approach I take.
The marijuana legalization movement is spreading rapidly across the country. Why do you think this is happening?
America is losing some of its traditional values and concerns over drugs like marijuana. We’ve entered a confusing moment where some personal liberties are being trampled upon, while others are being expanded.
Certainly there is a powerful marijuana lobby that has the media and popular culture supporting it. It feels like the marijuana lobby is just steamrolling everything in its path. There’s a lot of misinformation about marijuana out there, which makes it difficult to make wise choices. The popular narrative is that marijuana is very safe—safer than “fill-in-the-blank drug.” And that’s probably true in some instances, but not in all. There are different dangers and risks that get downplayed. I want to provide as much material as I can that helps Christians think wisely.
Is it appropriate to take the Bible’s treatment of alcohol and apply it to marijuana?
Not directly. But there is wisdom in how the Bible treats alcohol consumption. The Bible celebrates alcohol as a gift from God, but it commands moderation, and it is clear about drunkenness being a sin. Helpfully, the Bible doesn’t just forbid drunkenness—it also tells us why drunkenness is wrong.
When we look at the reasons—it diminishes cognitive ability, physical capacities, and moral judgment—we can see the connection with marijuana. No one questions the fact that you lose physical capacities, cognitive ability, and moral judgment when you’re high. And because of that, I think we can apply biblical wisdom on the use of a mind-altering substance like alcohol to the marijuana question, as long as we do it carefully.
When you speak publicly about marijuana, what are the most common responses you receive?
Among the most common is “Why are you so negative on medical marijuana when it helps so many people?” This would happen even when I wasn’t speaking about medical marijuana—which is one reason I started addressing it. Another common question is “Can I use marijuana in moderation?” If the moderation principle works for alcohol, people ask, then why not apply it to marijuana as well?
More and more, I’m getting comments along the lines that “Marijuana helps me with my relationship with God.” Maybe you’re like me, and you’re befuddled by that. But it’s a growing phenomenon, and people email me with these kinds of sentiments all the time.
What sorts of pushback do you tend to get from other Christians?
This is a contentious issue, and people usually have their minds made up. When I deliver talks on marijuana, there’s always a divided reaction. Some are angry that I seem too liberal, and others think I’m too hard on marijuana. The first group is upset that I don’t say, “Any positive spin on cannabis whatsoever is just leading people astray. This is straight from the Devil.” Oftentimes it’s because they know people who have struggled with marijuana use. So I can see where they’re coming from.
What I want to avoid is saying something the Bible doesn’t explicitly say. I’m hesitant to call something sin when the Bible doesn’t—unless I can explicitly connect dots. People will rebel against that, and rightly so.
CBD products are growing in popularity these days. What is the difference between CBD and THC, another active ingredient in marijuana?
THC and CBD are different cannabinoids. They do different things to the brain. THC is the chemical component in marijuana that has psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects. CBD, on the other hand, is basically the “essential oil” of the cannabis industry. I don’t think it does a tenth of what it promises, but it probably has some small benefits.
Many Christians worry about CBD because it comes from cannabis. But I don’t think anyone would argue that CBD is psychoactive. So none of the concerns I have about THC—that you lose cognitive ability, physical capacity, and moral judgment—apply to CBD. I’ve gotten criticism for saying this, but I’ve told my congregants, “You can bathe in CBD if you want.” My only moral concern is that you’ll go broke doing so.
You share in the book about your wife’s battle with cancer. How did your family’s experience affect your thinking on cannabis use?
The experience taught me that suffering itself is mind-altering. It shrinks your world. This doesn’t eliminate my concerns about mind-altering substances. But we have to recognize how suffering makes it difficult to take every thought captive to Christ.
The drugs my wife received for her nausea were intensely psychoactive. But her suffering was so acute that no godly person in their right mind would accuse her of sinning by taking them. Which led me to ask: Is there any morally significant difference between the psychoactive drugs she was taking and THC? I don’t see any.
THC demonstrably reduces nausea. It also increases appetite, which can have medical benefits. None of this makes it a good idea to just start smoking marijuana, because you can’t control your dosage the way you can with THC drugs that have been developed and extracted from the cannabis plant. But I believe we should thank God for THC when it can alleviate suffering responsibly.
Where do you see the marijuana debate going from here, and how will it affect our culture at large?
We’ve seen thus far that the more available marijuana is, the more people will use the products, including underage people. I think that’s problematic, and that’s going to have to be addressed.
For churches, this means that as cannabis use becomes increasingly mainstream, it’s going to become more of a pastoral issue. Pastors have to educate themselves on the risks associated with marijuana, and they need to teach their congregations about those risks. No longer can we say, “It’s the law, just don’t do it.” We have to give good reasons why.
The dominant cultural message is that marijuana is not just something that’s okay but something to be celebrated. That’s the environment Christians live in. Pastors need to understand this messaging, so they can get ahead of it and coach their congregations up.
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