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When Pot Is Legal, What Do We Say?

As marijuana laws change, a Christian response has to get to the root of the faith.
When Pot Is Legal, What Do We Say?
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Three years ago, "Mike"—a 20-year-old newcomer to the faith—stepped into my church office. He sat down on my office couch, distressed.

"What's going on, man?" I asked. The fact that he was hiding something couldn't have been more obvious.

"Well," he muttered. "Umm … I've been smoking too much pot lately."

"Just 'too much'?" I asked with a wry, confident smile. "Listen, friend, any pot smoking is too much pot smoking. It is illegal, after all."

"Actually," he said, "it's not illegal for me. I've got my medical marijuana card."

Uh-oh, I thought.

Sure enough: he was legal. He had come by the "license to toke" fairly. He didn't lie or exaggerate to get it. We have newspapers in Portland printing advertisements from doctors: "Headaches? Nausea? Pain? Come get your prescription!" I could get a prescription if I wanted one. Two blocks from our church's sanctuary is a lucrative legal pot dispensary. There are at least a dozen more within a five mile radius.

"Just say no!" was powerless sloganeering for this fellow, especially when he could easily point to Christian drinkers. Without the "obey the law" fallback, what was left?

"Well, just because it's legal," I said, "does not mean it's profitable."

Based on new public opinion stats from Gallup, opinions about marijuana use are changing. For the first time in U.S. history, the morality scales now tip in favor of legalization. More than 58 percent of people now favor it.

If you're a Washington or Colorado pastor, you can already legally fire up a reefer at your next staff retreat. By December 1 of this year, Washington producers will be legally licensed to grow marijuana for recreational use. You can bet your life that the indoor-hydro guys will be cranking those sodium halide grow lights day and night for about three months, until the winter snows melt and their "first" legal buds are vacuum packed and priced to sell. Based on the polls, it won't be long before other states—and eventually the federal government—will follow suit.

Growing up in the 8,000-person town of Burlington, Wisconsin, I learned just how against-the-law pot can be. I've had no trouble pointing to penal terms and state statutes for herbal debates in the past. It's been a sweet moral trump card for pastors. When a red-eyed brother in Christ asks how pot is different from other substances—like alcohol—"Obey the law of the land, son," the pastor says. "Like it or not, God calls us to obey our authorities. Hooch is legal; the marijuana cigarettes are not."

Conversation over.

But the trump card is gone for many of us. Likely for all of us soon. For our neighbors and church members, there will be no more need to stash baggies above ceiling tiles to keep them hidden from mom. No more secret lingo, "420" rendezvous, or clandestine hook-ups with Mary Jane. It's possible to imagine the host of your next home community meeting happily setting a jar of pot and a glass pipe next to the bottle of merlot on the refreshments table.

So what are you going to say when the issue gets personal? Should hip pastors spark a bowl with the lost to be "incarnational"? More importantly, are we ready to intelligently discuss recreational pot use with our youth, young adults, parents, and singles? Even more importantly, can we talk about it without oversimplification?

Gross oversimplification

When a pastor's advice on a moral issue fails, the usual culprit is oversimplification. I feel this keenly on the pot question, having fought on both sides. As a non-believing protester marching on Wisconsin's state capitol with a giant pot-leaf shaped Legalize it! sign, I saw dozens of otherwise law-abiding friends serve lengthy prison terms for buying, selling, and smoking pot. Now, as a pastor I see the destructive power of the substances that people use to medicate themselves. Now I'm learning to grow past oversimplification from either side.

Here are a few common oversimplifications, followed by the legitimate objections you'll encounter if you use them:

"Pot is bad for you, and our bodies are temples that we need to take care of."

So is alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and sugar. What in this world is not bad for you? Bus exhaust causes cancer, and according to California, so does everything else. My missionary friends in Nepal constantly fall seriously ill due to contaminated water, bacteria, chemicals, etc. Should they abandon their post? Super smog in China is killing thousands of people daily. Is it immoral to choose to live in a Chinese city? Should I avoid tap water to stay free from the chlorine and fluoride?

"Pot is worse than alcohol. You can't use it in moderation."

Worse specifically how? Certainly not according to any study (or basic, cursory glance) at the impact of either substances on our society at broad or individual levels. And what about using THC in a way that does not require smoking, such as vapor, brownies, or pills? What about using THC in small doses, equivalent to an IPA or glass of wine? Who measures intoxication? Is it a certain percentage? Is it a particular hindrance on one's capacity to function? Is it OK to drink two beers? Three? Is tolerance different for different people?

"Pot is never mentioned in the Bible, but wine is."

T-shirts and coffee are not in the Bible, either. Take off your shirt; throw away your mug!

"Pot is legal now, which means it is OK for Christians to use."

Is "OK to use" the Christian's measure of goodness? I could be an alcoholic, adulterous, deceitful, prescription-abusing, manipulative, hate-filled connoisseur of grotesque pornography and still be OK, legally and socially. Does the government's stamp of approval mean I should partake, or even can partake with moral uprightness? What about dope smoking is truly profitable for you and, more importantly, for your neighbor? What would Jesus smoke?

"Pot has medicinal qualities. It should be seen as helpful, not destructive."

Don't many substances have "medicinal" qualities? What do you even mean by "medicinal"? Tylenol is helpful until its acetaminophen eats your liver. Even if pot does help in some way, it can also make you lose control, right?

We could go on and on. Blanket declarations or position papers will not address the complexities of individual human lives. Oversimplification on this issue will necessarily neglect truth, and we want to be people of truth.

A green-pasture strategy

After "Mike" stepped out of my office, I felt uneasy. I had been unprepared for his legal status, and all I really did was exchange a new law for the old. Rather than asking "Is this legal?" because of my counsel to him, he was now only asking "Is this profitable?" I wish I could go back to that conversation and instead invite him to ask: "Why do I do what I do?"

It's one thing to agree that we should stop oversimplifying. So what, then, should we start doing?

We should consider the impact of substances upon the virtue and excellence that our Savior intended for us.

My colleague Bill Clem talks about a woman that he counseled during his previous ministry position. She suffered from multiple sclerosis. Bouts of physical stress caused flare-ups, each of which irreparably damaged her nervous system. Stress was literally killing her. With her medical marijuana card, however, she could legally counter that stress with a couple hits of legal pot smoke.

"The question when we talk about things like smoking legal weed, for me, is not so much about the 'what' question," Clem says. "I'm interested in the 'why' question. Why do we do what we do? So if I'm simply trying to numb myself and escape from life for a while, that is very different than my friend who was legitimately 'escaping' from neurologically damaging stress levels."

We need to listen carefully, with Bible-transformed ears to hear the plights of our fellow men and women. Dumping a 750 ml jug of wine into a lonely woman's gut on a gloomy day is very different than the same bottle of wine sipped into the same tummy during her wedding celebration with friends and family, especially if the wedding is held in Cana. Clem is right. The "what" question pulls us backwards, toward the lifeless power of Johnny Law. But the "why" question spurs us forward, toward the living freedom of Jesus Love.

You have heard it said, "Thou shalt not be 'blazin' the ganja." But I say to you that everyone who seeks pleasure outside of the gospel loses his life.

Pot smokers will never be convinced that drinking is healthier, more "Christian," or better for society. Neither will I, and I'm not even toking these days. Nor will they be swayed by warnings of impending doom and destruction. But you can make great headway with the Christian pot smoker along the lines of self-control. We need to bypass the "What are you doing?" question in areas that are morally ambiguous and drive directly into the core: "Why are you doing this?"

"Am I allowed to?" creates legalists. "Am I allowed to?" needs to change to "Is this helpful for my neighbor and me?" The former question forces me into a deadly self-obsession; the latter moves me toward the spirit of goodness and sacrificial love.

This is one reason that I silently welcome legalization; it forces me to thoughtfully help people where they really need help rather than tell them how to bow down to a statute. Jesus did not say, "I am the way, the truth, and the perfect adherent to state and federal laws."

My trajectory was proper when I asked the 20-year-old Christian pot smoker the what question: "What does or does not make your dope smoking profitable?" But he and I have spoken very little since. I think it's because I failed to get past the epidermis and into the chlorophyll, past the superficial question and into his heart.

I've realized that he, like many others, hear little more than a self-help suggestion in the profitability question. "What will make my life better?" is a fair inquiry, for sure, but it is also a myopic sub-point within the comprehensive complexities of a true gospel person. I have been commissioned to help my eternal family members move beyond the tired and worn plots of cracked and dusty self-love, to guide them toward good works and the rich, peace-saturated sustenance of truly green pastures. Here's how I will do things differently as weed continues to gain favor in the public square, legally and otherwise.

I will teach my people profitability in terms of others; help them practice putting on their neighbors' shoes. Any question related to consuming drugs must first and foremost be: "How does this benefit my neighbor, physically and spiritually?"

I will show them the greatness of self-sacrificial love, denying personal pleasures for the sake of others' well-being. "You must love one another," says Jesus. "Just as I have loved you, you must love other people in the same way." We all know that Jesus did not love others by running around protesting, crying about rights violations, or demanding that his life be more comfortable. Instead, he denied his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because loving humanity mattered more.

And finally, I will lead them to the Bible in all I say and do. Oversimplification looms large from any angle, and subjective anecdotes will flood most people's minds like a tsunami. Hear me now: You cannot debate this issue with physical science, social science, or strained comparisons to alcohol and other substances. We must trust the transforming power of God's Word to ground the Christian ethic. Expose the Scriptures to your people; it will train them to love others and the Lord their God in all that they think, in all that they do, and, yes, in all that they smoke.

Did I offer words of truth that day? Sure, but I have since learned that I can do much better by driving to the heart of an excellent Christian life. My preaching, teaching, and counseling too often veers toward the simplistic way. And when it does, the beauty and greatness of our salvation and life with the Savior is lost.

Ben Tertin is a pastor at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter: @BenTertin

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